Emergency scanner chatter swelled as reports of three separate wildfires came through the airwaves yesterday. The reports were fake, but officials throughout the county took them very seriously.
The mock-training was part of a county-wide effort to test response capability and coordination between multiple agencies in the case of a wildfire emergency.
“We try to make it as realistic as possible and think about everything you need to do,” said Steve Lipsher, the public affairs coordinator for Lake Dillon Fire Rescue.
“Everybody is taking it very seriously, because other than the real thing, we have no other way to know how prepared we are,” he said.
Firefighters responded to the first incident at about 9 a.m. after a smoke sign was spotted on the mountain just above St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco. A tree had been ignited as the result of a dry lightening storm.
Just a few blocks away, a group of Public Information Officers from Summit County communities and agencies gathered to form an information center to field calls from the media and public.
“This is a test for us on a county-wide level to get the PIOs together, make sure the phones are working the way we need them to and be better prepared for this summer when a wildfire does kick in,” said Tracy LeClair, Summit County sheriff’s office PIO.
Although Summit County has never had to set up an information center in response to an emergency wildfire, LeClair said it’s something local agencies need to be ready for.
“I thought it would be helpful for you to see how information flows,” she said. “If we can share information with that’s just one more avenue to get the message out to the public and make sure the information they are getting is accurate.”
A few minutes later, Summit County sheriff John Minor was on the scene at the High Country Training Center helping set up an incident command center.
“We are ramping up the incident command structure and responding to these incidents as they are happening,” he said.
The incident command center serves as the nerve center when a full-scale emergency incident occurs. From there, responders can order and deploy resources and coordinate with each other.
By early afternoon, the incident command center was in full force.
Three mock-wildfires had erupted at Ophir Mountain near Frisco, Ruby Ranch in Silverthone and in the Ptarmigan area near Dillon. Representatives from every law enforcement agency and fire department in Summit County were called in to manage the situation. Officials from the Forest Service, ambulance services, and the public health department were on hand. Representatives from the Northwest Colorado Incident Management Team were also brought in.
The room was buzzing with people in uniforms and brightly colored-vests talking on phones and radio transmitters, writing on white boards, filling out forms and debriefing one another on the latest events.
“We have literally hundreds of people participating in this exercise in one way or another,” Lipsher said. “All of these different divisions can rally together to help.”
The training exercise is designed to test how quickly individuals in each agency can adapt to new circumstances. Each person must anticipate a variety of emergency scenarios. Officials also have the opportunity to learn more about the role each agency plays in the event of an emergency.
Silverthorne police sergeant Bryan Siebel had just finished mock-evacuation measures for a fire near Ruby Ranch yesterday afternoon when he was called to the parking lot of Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in Silverthorne to debrief with other representatives from local fire and law enforcement agencies.
Siebel said he appreciated the training because it gave him the opportunity to turn plans into action.
“When you have it on paper it all looks great. But when you put it into practice you have things that come up,” he said. “That’s why we are doing this run through — and using all of these different agencies — to make sure everything comes together the way we need it to.”
Finding hiccups in the system is expected and even welcomed by emergency-training organizers.
“Every time you do these drills you find new things you didn’t prepare for,” Lipsher said. “We are finding things we need to do better. That is key. If everything went exactly how we wanted it to go we wouldn’t learn anything.”
In addition to on-the-ground training, members of the public were invited to participate in a simulated community meeting about wildfire operations and evacuations yesterday evening. The emergency preparedness exercise continues through today.