County’s safety personnel making plans to evacuate residents |

County’s safety personnel making plans to evacuate residents

Reid Williams

SUMMIT COUNTY – Summit’s top emergency responders spent the past week planning for the worst case wildfire scenario, and they’re urging county residents to be just as vigilant.

Unfortunately, one thing the conversations uncovered is that Summit County residents won’t be able to get early evacuation warnings the same way as did other wildfire-affected communities: Summit County is not equipped for reverse-911 calls.

Reverse-911 allows emergency dispatchers to call all households in the system’s service area and play recorded messages in times when authorities need to urgently communicate information.

“We’re in the process of getting it,” said Chris Benson, training supervisor for Summit County Communications, which operates the 911 service. “I would like to see it be in place by the end of summer.”

Benson said getting the technology in place for reverse-911 calls is a major step, as well as figuring out billing. Summit’s 911 service is funded through an intergovernmental agreement in which each town and the county pay a share of the bill. Benson added that residents with privacy features on their phone lines, such as caller ID blocking, will not be able to receive reverse-911 calls.

A Boulder-based company has offered free use of reverse-911 technology to Pitkin County and other areas near wildfire hotspots, according to the Aspen Times. Benson said she is looking into that arrangement, as well.

Even without reverse-911 calls this summer, Summit residents will be quickly alerted to wildfire danger. High-level meetings have taken place each day this week between managers, directors and chiefs from all aspects of the county, including fire and police departments, Summit County Ambulance, the county’s public safety department and communications dispatchers, the school district, the U.S. Forest Service, the American Red Cross and road and bridge workers. The planning discussions are building on and revising lessons learned from large-scale disaster practices, such as a mock school shooting at Summit High School in August and the Widespread Panic concert at Keystone in August 2000.

Residents can expect timely notification of wildfire danger and advice on evacuation routes from local radio stations. Benson said law enforcement and firefighters will quickly mobilize, alerting residential property managers along the way. Alerts will be spread door-to-door and from the streets using megaphones.

“I came away from Tuesday’s meeting really pleased,” Benson said. “We’re definitely ahead of the game in the planning picture.”

Summit’s authorities are finalizing details as to where evacuees can be housed, where animals can be kept, locations to use for staging firefighting crews or incident headquarters and what radio channels incident managers will use. Planning for personnel to meet citizens’ expected demand for information is critical, too, Benson said.

“I already have a plan to triple-staff (the dispatch center) for a minimum of 48 hours,” Benson said. “In addition, I’ll have two more people just answer phones and give out info, along with a cache of volunteer dispatchers.”

Summit School District facilities manager Mike Arnold and American Red Cross Mountain Branch manager Lisa Cloud are preparing to take in evacuees. As one of the largest landholders in the county with some of the biggest facilities, school district buildings likely will be used to house evacuees, as well as firefighters, in a large wildfire scenario.

“We have a working agreement with the Red Cross,” Arnold said. “The two of us work hand-in-hand setting up schools, primarily the middle school, then others as needed.”

Athletic fields might be converted to landing and fueling areas for helicopters. Firefighters might use school locker rooms and eat in school cafeterias. Incident managers might use school buildings’ extensive computer and telephone networks to communicate. Arnold said the schools “have a place to house all these things” and could “hold many thousands of people.”

“The big thing is don’t panic or get mad – anger just messes you up,” Cloud said. “Just be prepared. I think Summit County is in good shape. This is one of the most aggressive places I’ve ever lived as far as planning goes. And because the agencies all work together, they’re much more successful. It’s not “my’ agency or “your’ agency for them, it’s “our’ county.”

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