Since 9/11, millions put into security throughout Summit County
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For many Americans, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a lesson in vulnerability. The tragic events of that day opened the eyes of agencies nationwide to the flaws, gaps and shortcomings in federal, state and local emergency response systems and security measures and made nearly everyone look twice at community fixtures that suddenly seemed like possible targets.
“It causes you to re-evaluate being prepared for terrorist acts on a mass destructive scale that haven’t previously been given full attention,” Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue chief Dave Parmley said. “It certainly brought home the fact that those engaged in that form of terrorism are out to strike … even at the most innocent.”
In the decade since the attacks, Summit County has not been left out of the security revolution that swept the nation. Federal grants have distributed approximately $500,000 among local agencies over the last 10 years to improve capacity in emergency communications, responder safety and other categories, while Denver Water has spent millions to ensure the safety of the Dillon Dam.
The dam and the Eisenhower Tunnel became focal points of security enhancement in Summit County early on. The road, designed in the 1950s before terrorism was a factor considered in the course of infrastructure projects, and the tunnel, the highest in the world and one of the longest in the country, both saw major changes and security improvements in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
“The day of the occurrence, obviously there was some concern and some questions as to whether we needed to take any drastic measures, such as closing the tunnel,” Colorado Department of Transportation tunnel superintendent Mike Salamon remembers. “It was determined at a very high level that that was not necessary and (we just needed) to remain vigilant and on high alert, but in full operation.”
But in the months following the event, the vulnerability of the tunnel was closely evaluated by a team of experts, which came out with a series of suggested security enhancements that were eventually adopted.
Though he would not go into the details of those changes publicly, Salamon said public access was restricted (those who have been in the county long enough, remember restrooms at the tunnel being closed) as video surveillance and physical inspections of the facility were increased. There have been smaller evaluations of the tunnel in subsequent years.
The Dillon Dam Road, constructed, along with the reservoir, in a time before vulnerability to attack was a factor considered in infrastructure building, was also identified as a key point of vulnerability in the county. An attack on the dam could cause catastrophic flooding in Silverthorne, according to county emergency analysis reports.
“It was kind of one of those situations where all of a sudden, you’re aware that something like that could happen to it,” Denver Water director of operations Tom Roode said. “So you start to think about that facility completely differently. After you saw the things on 9/11 you realize. Prior to Sept. 11, the dam, it just wasn’t on the radar of issues.”
Security improvements were not immediate on the dam. Denver Water went through all of its facilities systematically to ensure they were safe. But, over the next several years, drivers began to see the changes.
Roode, too, declined to go into the specifics of security enhancements that were made, but over time, two paid guards – Roode said they are highly trained and usually off-duty law enforcement officers – appeared at either end of the structure, and eventually, the road was closed to all traffic at night.
Today, a Dillon Dam Security Task Force, made up of Denver Water, local government and law enforcement officials, is implementing a plan to improve security on the dam while still allowing cars to travel the road 24 hours a day. The project, which includes roundabouts, guard shacks and increased lighting is expected to be completed by October.
For emergency responders, 9/11 was a wake-up call that highlighted holes and gaps in their systems. As airport screenings grew more and more intensive and “homeland security” became a household phrase, local agencies and their counterparts statewide were taking a hard look at how to improve capacity and become better prepared for something no one had ever really expected to happen.
“No one had faced an event of this magnitude, in terms of such a large life loss situation and destruction of high-rise towers like that,” Parmley said. “It was easy, prior to 2001, to say that couldn’t happen.”
When it became clear that mass-casualty events could happen in the U.S., local agencies began looking at ways to be better prepared for them. Funding from the Department of Homeland Security was distributed regionally and, to a lesser extent, locally to various agencies to improve capability in communications, training and responder safety.
“The word I would use to describe the changes in the last 10 years wouldn’t be so much around plans that have changed,” county emergency manager Joel Cochran said. “But would be around capabilities that have been identified and improved.”
Dollars from homeland security grants were distributed out to various agencies throughout the county – rather than directly to the county government – as they identified ways to improve security capabilities in various programs. Cochran said a focus was put on communications, hazardous materials response and responder health and safety.
Regionally, in northwestern Colorado, nearly $5 million has been spent to improve communication among emergency response agencies in the last 10 years, more than any other category. Cochran said reports following the 9/11 attacks indicated communications was one of the No. 1 failures that caused responders to die.
“Our region has taken that very seriously,” Cochran said. “And that’s a success story. Frankly, that’s a good use of homeland security money.”
Summit County has also focused, internally on training, planning and preparedness among agencies, officials said.
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