Summit County public safety officals hone tactics during simulation of full-scale wildfire
It’s late June in Summit County. The sun is blazing, the mountains are dry. The National Weather Service has red-flag warnings out all across the state. Something is waiting to explode out in the backcountry.
Suddenly, reports come in from motorists on Interstate 70 about heavy smoke rising above Silverthorne. A brushfire ignited near the Mesa Cortina neighborhood under the shadow of Buffalo Mountain, and it’s growing. The wind shifts south and thick black smoke cuts off I-70, billowing into Frisco. Within an hour, the smoke engulfs the area’s largest hospital, St. Anthony Summit Medical Center. The patients need to be evacuated, along with the rest of the town’s residents.
What happens next?
That was the scenario presented to representatives from organizations and agencies across the county involved in emergency operations during an exercise on Friday. The so-called “tabletop” exercise, which involved pen and paper instead of axes and hoses, was a static run through of a full real-world exercise taking place in Silverthorne on June 21.
“One of the primary focuses of tabletop exercises is to go over existing plans and policies and procedures,” said Brian Bovaird, director of Summit’s office of emergency management. “Very often, the people in this room work independently of each other, and when we need to respond to these emergencies they become moving parts in a much bigger machine. With this exercise, we combine all of our plans for a wildfire scenario to identify if there are any issues and see how they work together.”
Local fire districts, town and county law enforcement, EMTs, forest rangers, environmental health officials, hospital staff, animal control, dispatch and public information personnel were all involved in the exercise. Stations were set up around the room for each department. Bovaird presented different phases of the scenario alongside questions and worksheets specific to the purview of each station. The groups then broke up and huddled to discuss tactics and resource allocation in a barebones simulation of how the agencies would respond for the real exercise on June 21 or any wildfire emergency.
After about half an hour of poring over maps and discussing strategy, each department reported on how it would respond to each phase of the emergency, as well as coordinate with other departments. The fire districts would be working to contain the fire. The sheriff’s department would be in charge of evacuation and traffic management. The Red Cross would need to staff staging areas for evacuees. Animal control would need to evacuate the shelter. The hospital would need to safely evacuate patients while new casualties would need to be diverted to smaller mountain clinics in safe areas. All the while, agencies needs to coordinate with each other through the Incident Command Center, which in turn would need to relay information to the Emergency Operations Center, which would provide situational updates to the Joint Information Center for distribution to the public.
Julie Sutor, public affairs coordinator for Summit County government, is part of the Joint Information Center team. The group, made up of public information and public relations personnel from all across the county, would work around the clock to get emergency updates to the public through various channels.
“Our primary means of communicating to the public is Summit County Alert,” Sutor said, “and we would also be deploying other communications channels, such as the emergency blog on the Summit County website. The blog would be continually updated with information from the Emergency Operations Center, and we would also be using social media channels and media to amplify that message.”
Bovaird said that doing a dry run for the full-scale exercise was especially important as any parts working out of sync could throw the entire system in disarray.
“Our goal here is to help us get a lot more out of the actual exercise,” Bovaird said. “Jurisdictional issues can often be a problem even for an exercise, and being able to have everyone in one place to talk to each other and coordinate their responses is huge.”
Bovaird wanted to emphasize that the tabletop simulation was just one part of the county’s larger contingency planning to keep the public safe.
“This is one small piece of the puzzle of preparedness and training,” Bovaird continued. “The tabletop itself will give us a clearer vision of how the exercise will look. We will also have functional drills in the community throughout the spring and summer, as well as more elaborate response training, which will all prepare us better for the real thing.”
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