County, state and federal officials come together for full-scale emergency exercise
Emergency workers from around the county sprung into action last week for the county’s full-scale emergency exercise, bringing together resources from the local, state and federal levels to take part in a mock incident.
The Summit County Office of Emergency Management puts on an exercise about once a year, always hoping to test the county’s emergency response capabilities in different ways. But this year officials were looking to push their abilities a little further, designing a scenario that called for widespread cooperation between numerous state and federal partners.
“We tried to step outside the box and work with partners like the (Environmental Protection Agency) and the Civil Support Team from the National Guard,” said Brian Bovaird, director of Summit County Emergency Management, who noted that it took months of planning to loop state and federal agencies into the exercise. “For this exercise, we wanted to integrate so many different partners and objectives that we had to get creative with the scenario.”
The scheme, designed by stakeholders over about five months, revolved around a large-scale hazardous materials leak. On May 30, emergency responders were asked to tackle a mock criminal mining operation near Montezuma, a hazardous materials release into the Peru Creek area, multiple injuries of bystanders and more.
Frontline responders with Summit Fire & EMS as well as Red, White & Blue — the county’s combined hazmat response team — along with state and federal partners donned full personal protective equipment and went to work trying to monitor and identify chemicals in the water system. Participants with St. Anthony Summit Medical Center practiced decontaminating patients before they entered the hospital and dealt with a surge of walk-in patients from the incident. The American Red Cross set up a full evacuation shelter at Breckenridge Recreation Center, and numerous other agencies also participated in other capacities.
All the while, the agencies worked to keep constant communication with incident command, the emergency operations center and the joint information center. For emergency workers in the area, the exercises provide an important opportunity to practice situations they rarely face.
“I think these exercises are excellent training opportunities in getting us thinking about different reactions, and getting us in the mindset of anticipating issues that can arise during a crisis,” said Steve Lipsher, public information officer with Summit Fire & EMS. “Our firefighters were involved on the frontline, so they got an opportunity to work while they’re wearing their ‘Gumby’ suits, and gain a level of comfort using that equipment.
“Part of the idea of these exercises is they’re designed to overwhelm our local resources, which is realistic. We don’t have the luxury of having dozens of extra specialists waiting around for the once-in-a-career type incident like this, so we have to know how to activate the various support networks that are available to a community like Summit County and bring in the cavalry to help out.”
In addition to coordinating with agencies outside of the county, which Bovaird noted was a rarity in itself during drills, the exercise also allowed emergency services to brush up on more administrative and high-level issues. Bovaird said that before the exercise kicked off, officials got together with the Summit Board of County Commissioners to walk through the steps of drafting and signing an emergency declaration.
Additionally, the county went through the motions of signing off on a delegation of authority to the Northwest Incident Management Team — a group that provides the framework for coordinating operational command and implementing emergency response for incidents outside the scope of local emergency responses — and followed the process through having the team hand control of the incident back to county officials. Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said the smooth transition of authority is vital to a strong emergency response.
“It was another great community exercise, and we were able to bring in the Northwest Incident Management Team and practice that transition to a more skilled team than our local team,” FitzSimons said. “The great thing about bringing in a team is that here in the county, we’re all busy wearing multiple hats. What’s important to me is the continuity of service outside of the incident. When we have a large-scale incident, there’s still 911 calls coming in at the same time for other emergencies, and being able to provide that continuity of service is really important.”
While officials from around the county felt that the exercise was largely a success, the point is to identify areas that need improvement in the face of a real emergency. Bovaird said the biggest issue in this response was communication and trying to adapt to limited cellular and radio coverage, noting that Summit’s emergency services use different radio communications from the rest of the state.
“Every time we do this, we’re looking at how we’re communicating, not just between different agencies but within agencies, and how we’re getting the information from incident command and the emergency operations center down to the street-level officers,” Bovaird said. “We could do this exercise 10 more times, and we’d find different challenges with communications. That’s the biggest thing is adapting to breaks in communication. That’s one challenge that jumped out at us.”
Overall, officials were impressed with the way the exercise went. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who sat in at the emergency operations center Friday to provide insight into how a criminal incident of this size might be handled after the fact, lauded the county for its efforts.
“I got to see government operating at its best,” Weiser said. “This was an extraordinary group of agencies from federal, state and local governments working together on the sort of problem that’s real. Whether it’s a wildfire, a terrorist threat or a contaminated river, we’ve got to get people together from all these agencies. You can’t do it if you don’t practice, and it’s great to see them practicing in such a deliberate way. I see this as a model for other parts of the state.”
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