Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Officials: Fire reviews can help improve multi-agency communications

DEBBIE KELLEY Updated: April 3, 2013 at 12:00 am

When something bad happens, good often follows, and that’s what area government officials hope occurs in light of Wednesday’s release of Colorado Springs’ final Waldo Canyon fire report.

“Good can come out of a disaster, and that’s where the focus needs to be today,” said El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, whose District 3 includes most of the areas impacted by last summer’s destructive wildfire.

“Now is the time for us to make sure we’re communicating together and not silo our operations and say what happens in the city doesn’t matter if it happens in the unincorporated county,” she said.

The city’s reports cites several communication deficiencies that occurred during the fire, including sporadic cell phone and wireless connectivity, the lack of a “large incident, multi-agency communications plan,” not assigning a communications unit leader for each shift and problems reaching the emergency operations center and city employees working in the field.

Green Mountain Falls Mayor Lorrie Worthey agrees that a breakdown in communication was noticeable and affected her community because half of the residents headed west to Woodland Park during the evacuation period, while the other half went down the pass to Colorado Springs.

“The fire showed us that we have to go across the lines and work with the municipalities and different agencies,” Worthey said. “It opened our eyes to where we need to look at all of this and reach out and work with each other. The fire brought to light that Green Mountain Falls is here and our people matter.”

Clark said that while the city’s report does not contain many interagency references, “those were areas we need to improve on,” adding that El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa’s office is preparing its own after action report on the fire.

Both Clark and Worthey, along with other government representatives, have been working together since the fire to improve communications. Multiple agencies participated in a tabletop exercise on March 21 to test the response to a hypothetical flood, for example.

“I feel like we’re on the same page,” Worthey said, “and that’s what really matters.”

Clark said she believes the Pikes Peak region is better prepared this year to handle an emergency.

“The focus needs to be not necessarily this went wrong and pointing fingers but making a concerted effort to fill in those gaps and do a better job next time disaster strikes,” she said. “As long as we’re communicating, we can coordinate our response so we’re not duplicating efforts and the messaging is not confusing.”

Communication also was the biggest stumbling block during the Hayman fire in June 2002, said Woodland Park Mayor David Turley. He said Teller County learned from mistakes made during that disaster, Colorado’s largest wildfire that burned more than 138,100 acres, and made adjustments that proved to be beneficial during the Waldo Canyon fire.

“Communication is the key to everything because if you don’t have good communication, you won’t do a good job,” Turley said.

Officials from Woodland Park and Teller County have developed a “more collaborative nature,” he said, which resulted in different perspectives coming together to work on the same goals in addressing last summer’s fire.

“There’s always room for improvement, and I think that’s what will happen with the Waldo Canyon fire,” he said. “You take the horrific and see where you can learn.”

Turley said Woodland Park is updating its emergency action plan with assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Office at U.S. Northern Command. Minor tweaks will address lessons learned from the Waldo Canyon fire, he said, such as having better maps to help establish evacuation boundaries. The plan is expected to be completed in a few months, Turley said.

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FLOOD PREPARATION

El Paso County and the city of Colorado Springs on Monday will launch an emergency preparedness campaign with town hall meetings to get residents ready for the next potential disaster: flash flooding.

The first two meetings will be 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at Ute Pass Elementary School, 9230 Chipita Park Road. Monday’s session will address the needs of Green Mountain Falls, and Tuesday night’s meeting will be for residents of Chipita Park and Cascade.
Preparing for a flood, mitigation steps, flood insurance, a watershed update and other information will be presented.

Similar meetings will be held April 15 and April 24 at the Manitou Springs City Hall, 606 Manitou Ave., for residents of that town.

And on April 11, from 6 to 8 p.m., another session will be held at Glen Eyrie, 3820 N. 30th St., to discuss flash flood concerns for residents of the Pleasant Valley neighborhood.

For more information, contact mattandrews@elpasoco.com or call 520-6391.

Homeowners impacted by the Waldo Canyon fire, or who live in high flood risk areas, may receive pre-filled sandbags for their property. Sandbags will be loaded into vehicles from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on April 13 at Verizon Wireless, 2424 Garden of the Gods Road.

Flood preparedness brochures will be dropped off at residents’ doors throughout April as well.

Contact Debbie Kelley: 476-1656.

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