Human services works to assure safety of access and functional needs population during evacuations |

Human services works to assure safety of access and functional needs population during evacuations

A Wildernest family, including a 9-year-old with cerebral palsy, are assisted by the Summit County Sheriff's Office's Erin Sirek. Deputies gave the family a ride out of the neighborhood, which was evacuated during the Buffalo Fire last year.
Hugh Carey /

Emergency operations can seem chaotic.

First responders spread out to control crowds and combat whatever incident has taken place, and officials set up shop at incident posts and emergency operations centers — pouring over everything from tactics to finances.

But there’s also a lot of behind the scenes work that helps to assure community members stay safe. Part of that infrastructure revolves around the Summit County Department of Human Services, which provides a vital service helping individuals with access and functional needs evacuate in the event of a large-scale emergency.

“I can’t think of many things more important,” said Joanne Sprouse, director of the county’s human services department. “We’re here to help protect the clientele that might struggle in this area. That’s what human services is for, and that’s why this function was created. We know we need to be there and give assistance to people in our community, to help them with any issues in this area that they might struggle with.”

Along with other functions during emergencies — such as assisting in mass sheltering and reunification efforts — the department of human services is responsible for helping make sure community members with special needs are able to properly evacuate.

The program was designated as an emergency support function across the country following the September 11 attacks, though Sprouse said the program has been highlighted over the last year-plus under the guidance of emergency management director Brian Bovaird, and the operation continues to evolve.

“There’s a constant cycle of training and exercises, and evaluating how our system works and determining areas of improvement in putting those fine tuned plans into action during incidents,” said Julie Sutor, the county’s director of communications. “It’s a continual cycle, and endless. Joanne and her team have really dug in harder over the past year or two to make some big improvements, and put a sharper emphasis on access and functional needs.”

The program is based on a network of agencies and organizations in the area that work with individuals with access and functional needs challenges — anything that could be considered a barrier for a person understanding or having the ability to evacuate, from physical disabilities like paralysis to cognitive issues like Alzheimer’s disease, and more.

The network has grown considerably over the last couple years, featuring about 20 different organizations including Timberline Adult Day Services, Mind Springs Health and the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence, among others.

Human services helps to train their partner organizations so that they have an idea of who they know that might need assistance during an emergency. In the event of an incident, the emergency management office will activate human services and all of the organizations within the network will be alerted.

From there the system largely works like a funnel. The organizations in the network will reach out to individuals they’re aware of in vulnerable populations living in the area of the emergency. For those they can’t reach, they send in a form to human services noting where they are and in what capacity the individual may need assistance, along with other pertinent information like if the person may require an oxygen tank or if there may be a language barrier. Human services will attempt to make contact with the individual, and will notify law enforcement to go check on them if they’re unable to.

“Maybe someone is deaf and won’t hear the evacuation or get the alert, or maybe there’s a cognitive issue and they’re confused about why the sheriff’s office is coming around,” said Sprouse. “That agency could then contact us and we’ll know what the issue is and how we can help them. We can filter and quickly drill down to people we need to help right away.”

Human services also assists with ancillary issues related to evacuations. For example, if an evacuated person needs to return to their home for necessary medication, human services can work with law enforcement to help facilitate that.

Sprouse said that the filtering process is effective, and during even large-scale emergencies such as the Buffalo Fire last year, the department is able to narrow the number of law enforcement contacts to just “a handful.”

But as officials continue to refine the program, the one of the biggest challenges standing in their way is the number of individuals with access or functional needs who are unassociated with one of the organizations in the department’s network.

“When we started this a few years ago we didn’t have a lot of agencies on board,” said Sprouse. “There’s probably about 20 on here now. But there are people who will be out of agencies, so what we’ve been working on is how do we reach the people that aren’t connected to one of these agencies?”

Sprouse said human services has been taking part in ongoing outreach efforts to bring new organizations into the network like churches and hospitals, who may be aware of individuals who suffered recent injuries or are otherwise unaffiliated with the network.

Additionally, the county has a Community Inclusion Committee — a group composed of human services and other organizations in the network — that meets quarterly to discuss these issues, and how best to improve the system.

County officials said that anyone dealing with access or functional needs concerned with not being affiliated with an agency could reach out to human services to get more information about how the system works, and talk through potential issues in the event of an emergency.

“You should talk through the particular situation,” said Sutor. “Because each person is unique, and so they could talk about what resources they have available or what those needs might be. And then Joanne and her team could make some specific recommendations for how they could be best prepared.”

“The most important thing is that you’ve had those conversations, and that people in the area are aware and prepared,” added Sprouse. “That’s the biggest first step.”

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