January 10, 2014 Updated: January 10, 2014 at 5:32 pm
Last year's devastating Black Forest fire, statewide destructive floods, and the Waldo Canyon fire of 2012 taught emergency responders much about the need for strong public communications.
Armed with a "it's not a matter of if, but when" mindset, the City of Colorado Springs, El Paso County, the El Paso County Sheriff's Office and 211 Pikes Peak United Way have joined forces to enhance communications during an emergency and are seeking hundreds of volunteer call-takers.
"It was an interesting, sad and very fulfilling experience, and I will definitely keep volunteering," said Sandra Damron, former El Paso County treasurer and a call-taker volunteer during last summer's Black Forest fire.
Damron had to learn the geography of Black Forest quickly to find roads and homes and identify evacuation areas, she said. During her time as county treasurer from 2003 to 2010, Damron became familiar with county commissioners and sheriff's office personnel, so when she heard that the Joint Information Center needed volunteers to handle calls, she dove right in.
But more volunteers are needed.
"We are looking for a pool of about 250 volunteers in the community who want to help out during an emergency," said 211 director Michelle Milner. "We're hoping for a large number so we'll have lots of people to choose from, because disasters don't strike from nine to five. We need folks who can be available at diverse times."
Duringdisasters, local governments operate a Joint Information Center - an extension of the Emergency Operations Center - to release official information to the media and the public. Those in the call center provide the public with real-time information about the event.
"With this collaboration, 211 can be activated during emergencies, freeing up 911 lines and helping the public with calls concerning evacuation times and areas, shelter locations, road closures and more," Milner explained. "During the Waldo Canyon fire, which was our first disaster in a long time, we learned how to do things better, and we figured out what we did well. We are going to apply all those lessons for the future and make sure we pass them to our volunteers."
Volunteers should be quick-thinkers who can handle pressure well and be sympathetic to the callers, said city spokeswoman Kim Melchor.
"The call takers really need to have the heart to listen and be patient, because the vast majority of callers will be highly anxious and stressed," Melchor said. "At the same time, they need to be able to communicate useful information and stay calm."
For Damron, the hardest part was having to tell Black Forest residents when their home had burned down, or when she had to tell an evacuee that they couldn't return to their home yet.
"Some people were very stressed, most were worried and unbelievably polite," Damron said.
Two volunteer traning sessions will be offered at Centennial Hall, 200 S. Cascade Ave.
2-4 p.m. Monday, Feb. 3
9-11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5
RSVP to Claire@ppunitedway.org or call 955-0746.