If disaster strikes, Summit County has a plan
Summit Daily News
When the wildfire danger near Breckenridge spiked to “extreme” over July 4 last year, the town and its emergency response agencies went to work.
In addition to preparing extensive new evacuation plans, the town partnered with lodging companies to make sure visitors were aware of the risk by putting letters explaining the danger and how to get information in guests’ check-in packets.
The key to handling large-scale emergencies, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is to be prepared in advance of the emergency. In the face of disaster, they advise, have a plan.
Summit County’s emergency management plan, a guiding document for the county in the event of a crisis, was recently rewritten to reflect lessons learned from real national emergencies, including Katrina and Sept. 11.
“This rewrite is a reflection of the national response guidance,” said Summit County emergency manager Joel Cochran. “These documents are really living documents. So through these large national disasters, we’re learning that not everything was considered.”
The emergency plan, last updated in 2005, provides a broad foundation for responding to an emergency situation and coordinating various local agencies, departments and towns in the face of a natural or man-made disaster in the county. A more specific multi-hazard plan addresses each town’s risks and emergency needs individually.
For most of Summit, hazards include wildfires, floods and avalanches, though a bad winter storm poses the most significant threat to the county, according to county emergency documents.
Luckily for Cochran and his team, many large-scale disasters, particularly natural disasters, give some warning. In many cases, the community can take steps to keep the risk of a widespread emergency low.
“A lot of the emergency management world is also risk management,” Cochran said. “It’s unlikely that we would have an immediate catastrophic emergency that was unpredicted.”
The emergency management office is tasked with monitoring the risk and likelihood of an emergency. When a bad snow storm is on its way or fire danger exceeds a certain level, the emergency management office knows it and can put emergency response agencies on alert.
In the event of a pending large-scale emergency, when Cochran believes the county’s resources might be overwhelmed, a little advanced warning gives him time to reach out to neighboring counties for assistance.
“We have an honest recognition of our limitations,” Cochran said. “We know what our resources are, and I think it’s really important to know when you need to ask for help.”
Summit County faces a unique set of challenges when it comes to emergency planning, not the least of which are the potentially isolating landscape and the constantly fluctuating number of people in the county.
While winter storms or other emergencies can cut the county off, both from outside help and exit routes, the flow of visitors to Summit makes it difficult to predict how many people local agencies may be responsible for keeping safe.
Many of Summit’s emergency plans are scalable, Cochran said, and in recent years the county and local governments have begun using alternative means of communication to help get emergency information out to visitors who might not be familiar with local systems and hazards. Today, Summit County is poised to reach out to the public in the event of an emergency through various media, including e-mail and text messages through the SC Alert system, Facebook and Twitter feeds and the radio as well as more traditional methods.
“We realize that a large demographic no longer relies on television,” Breckenridge police spokeswoman Kim Green said.
Breckenridge officials said in an emergency situation they would contact visitors though partnerships with the Breckenridge Resort Chamber and the local lodging companies who can then contact their guests, as they did during the last summer’s extreme fire danger period.
But the flow of tourism might also prove to be a benefit for the county’s emergency response teams, presenting them with more frequent opportunities to hone their skills and coordinate their efforts, Cochran said.
“The make up of the county, in terms of how its population changes with big influxes (of visitors) does let our agencies practice working together, coordinating and assisting one another,” Cochran said. “And that process, depending on the emergency, is just scalable.”
Silverthorne police officers, for instance, get hands-on experience in efficiently moving heavy traffic through key evacuation intersections in town over July 4.
County emergency plans are integrated with various departments, including those that don’t regularly work in emergency situations, such as the Summit Stage, as well as the towns. The emergency management office has determined the risk and potential magnitude of various disaster situations in each town and evaluated potential losses for each as part of the plan.
The county also counts on individuals to be ready to handle an emergency, should it arise, Cochran said. He advises Summit County residents, like local governments and agencies, to be prepared in advance by understanding the hazards in their communities and knowing how to get information quickly in the event of an emergency.
Individuals should have their own emergency plans for how to keep themselves, their loved ones and pets and even their neighbors safe if necessary, Cochran said.
“People in this community are as integral a part in preparedness as the agencies their tax dollars support,” Cochran said. “They are a part of the solution to everybody being safe and getting out of harm’s way. There are not enough public safety agencies to make that happen.”
Cochran encouraged members of the public to consider an evacuation situation beforehand, knowing how they would get information and what personal items they would want to bring if they had to be evacuated at a moment’s notice.
The Summit County Alert system, http://www.scalert.org, is a helpful source of real-time information for county residents. The free messaging system sends out text messages and e-mails with customized updates.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website http://www.ready.gov also offers information on how individuals can prepare themselves for an emergency situation.
The county’s emergency plan, with annexes for each town is available online at http://www.co.summit.co.us under Emergency Management.
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