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Gazette Premium Content Danger at your Doorstep: Disaster planning, communication better

By Andrea Sinclair Updated: April 14, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Local emergency officials have improved their disaster planning after the wildfires and floods of the past two years.

The Waldo Canyon fire, Black Forest fire and subsequent flooding showed officials with the Office of Emergency Management in El Paso County, or OEM, that sharing information among agencies and with the public is key during a disaster.

In a recent weeklong exercise with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, emergency responders, city officials, police, fire and Colorado Springs Utilities representatives assessed the efficiency of the OEM's disaster response plan.

"The biggest improvement, in terms of communication, is that we've increased the capacity of our joint information center," said emergency management coordinator Ken Hughlett. "We'll have a public information officer at the emergency operations center at all times that will coordinate with the joint information center, and will ensure the uniformity of the information everyone is receiving."

The most useful aspect of the joint information center, Hughlett explained, will be that representatives from the city, county, school districts, police, fire, emergency services and even military will be present at all times to share information. Social media, including Facebook and Twitter, have become essential tools to share information with the public, Hughlett said.

Officials also are learning when to share information. Oversaturation is a concern, because repeated alerts can cause people to become desensitized to a situation's urgency.

"For example, I've seen alerts being sent out about a winter blizzard two days before it was expected, and what happened is that a lot of people ignored the warnings because they came too soon," Hughlett said. "We have to find a balance between keeping people informed, and still interested."

Officials have been working on how to better allocate manpower from various agencies during emergencies, Hughlett said, "because we don't want a police officer, a firefighter and a public works employee all at one intersection at the same time."

The burn scar areas have also taught emergency responders a great deal, especially during the floods in August and September.

"Before we used to say that just a half-inch in less than an hour would cause flash flooding, but now we're learning that there are exact areas in the burn scar where the precipitation would cause flooding," Hughlett said. "It varies, especially depending on the conditions of the soil."

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