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Gazette Premium Content County's lessons from fire leads to new evacuation website

RYAN MAYE HANDY Updated: April 18, 2013 at 12:00 am

Problems with evacuations and communication during the Waldo Canyon fire inspired the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office to design an interactive evacuation website, which the county launched on Thursday.

“Ready, Set, Go!” is an information portal that clarifies for residents the types of evacuations as well as provides evacuee checklists of items to take and how to prepare to leave their homes.

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa unveiled the website during a news conference Thursday on the county’s Waldo Canyon After Action Report, which pinpointed the county’s strengths and weaknesses in response to the devastating blaze. While addressing problem areas, he also praised the efficiency and thoroughness of county-wide evacuations, and said the process was “documented very well” and “well thought out.”

“Mother Nature could have worked against us and in many cases didn’t, but we were able to make sure we protected life, we were able to execute evacuations in a very orderly and systematic manner, and we were able to protect property in the unincorporated areas,” Maketa said. “So when I look back and I try to give an overall label of this incident, we did some things very well, we did some things we can do much better, but we met the objective.”

Implementing existing plans and disaster training proved a challenge during the fire for both the city of Colorado Springs and the sheriff’s office. But the sheriff praised the ease with which his employees stepped into new roles in the foreign structure of disaster management, and as things became more desperate, the staffing plan supported the county’s growing needs. Transitioning the fire in its early stages from the county to the national Type 1 Incident Management was a “flawless” process, Maketa added. He was praised by the fire’s Incident Commander Rich Harvey, whose team relied on the county’s map printers and satellite imagery when the team’s mapping systems were temporarily broken.

Maketa also spoke to the county’s pitfalls, which mirrored the problems outlined in the city’s after action report, released on April 3.

Communications issues prevailed in nearly all aspects of the county’s response, whether they involved working with the city and residents, or passing decisions made by people on the fire line up the chain of command. When the fire exploded on June 26, tripled in size and consumed 347 homes and killed two people, managing the onslaught of outside fire departments and resources was challenging, the county’s report said.

While correcting some of the problems will mean simply adhering to existing plans — such as using the Incident Command System protocol for communications — other failures require changes.

In addition to pumping more resources into its own wildland crew, the county’s “Ready, Set, Go!” website is aimed at eliminating confusion about evacuations. During the fire, the evacuation commands were nuanced and poorly explained, and left residents wondering about such things as the difference between a voluntary evacuation versus a mandatory one, the report said.

“We intentionally designed it to be very interactive and be sensitive to all variety of age, and computer knowledge throughout our community,” Maketa said.

The site breaks down the three evacuation types — pre-evacuation, voluntary and mandatory — and gives residents check-lists and suggestions for coming up with an evacuation plan. The site declares that nursing homes and medical care facilities will be put on mandatory evacuation before regular residents, to give them more time. The sheriff said he wants to avoid evacuating in a time crunch.

The county exhausted all means of reaching residents during the evacuations for the Waldo Canyon fire, sometimes with mixed success. Deputies were forced to return and re-check neighborhoods were they did not document who had evacuated, and thousands of emergency notification 911 calls never reach homeowners.

“We had the luxury of time on our side,” which allowed deputies to go door-to-door and identify people who refused to leave. “Plans had called for that, but to actually do that on this level or scope, it was really a test of our personnel.”

When it came to juggling firefighters and local governments, some messages were also lost in the communications vacuum. Decisions on the ground to call for more resources were sometimes not passed to the top, the Incident Command Post, and general communication was sporadic, the county’s report said. Roles also were sometimes confused — the emergency operations center, EOC, is not supposed to direct field resources without consulting incident command. Nor is the EOC a place for policy makers and politicians, said Maketa.

Maketa lobbied for a joint EOC, having learned that the disparate emergency centers for the county, city and fire department lead to a chaotic exchange of information, and tended to push people away from the well-established Incident Command System.

But, as the county fire marshal, Maketa also has scrutinized larger wildland firefighting issues. He is concerned about military aircraft use in fires, as well as access to U.S. Forest Service lands that abut western El Paso County. For him, one of the biggest challenges is forest access — giving local or national wildland crews a better system of trails or roads through areas of the Pike National Forest that are close to residential neighborhoods.

The El Paso County Wildland Crew considered creating a fire-break east of Queens Canyon, but realized getting that deep into the forest would be impossible. Access to the forest has dwindled since the collapse of the logging industry and federal budget cuts, but Maketa intends to push the U.S. Forest Service to expand forestry roads with firefighters in mind, he said.

Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261

Twitter @ryanmhandy

Check out more fire news at blogs.gazette.com/firenews

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