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Saturday fire department exercise will test speed, communication

By: matt steiner
May 2, 2014 Updated: May 2, 2014 at 6:23 pm
Caption +
Colorado Springs firefighter Erin Beary, right, and driver Mark Sperry hang hose on the back of Engine 3 during a training exercise on May 30, 2012. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Colorado Springs firefighters will spring into action Saturday morning, equipping themselves in full gear, climbing into a pair of engines and quickly heading north to Castle Rock.

The sudden response will happen sometime around 10 a.m. after a dispatcher makes a "Broken Arrow" call over the region's emergency response frequencies.

Colorado Springs crews won't be the only first responders taking part in the exercise. Springs Chief Chris Riley said 25 to 30 fire departments will be waiting for the call in the same manner. The purpose of the event is to see if 30 engines carrying more than 100 firefighters can be at a specified site in 90 minutes or less. Riley calls it the "Broken Arrow 30/90" exercise.

"We're about ready to change the 21st Century fire service in the state of Colorado," Riley said.

The chief serves as the chairman of a Front Range task force that is exploring best practices for responding quickly to wildfires and keeping them under control.

"We have taken fires very seriously from a standpoint of lessons learned," Riley said. "We've learned how important it is to get as many resources as quickly as possible on a fire that has started to grow."

Riley said Colorado Springs is "leading the charge in the state" after two years of devastating wildfires in El Paso County that burned more than 32,000 acres on both public and private land. Last year's Black Forest Fire destroyed 488 homes and killed two people. And in June 2012, the Waldo Canyon blaze roared down the mountains west of Colorado Springs, killing two others and destroying 347 homes.

Saturday's Broken Arrow exercise will be the first of two along the Front Range over the next couple of weeks. On May 13, a similar training event will take place in Larimer County.

Colorado Springs will not be part of the Larimer exercise as the city is out of the 90-minute drive time needed for quick response.

Riley said engines from the Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District and the Cimarron Hills Fire Department will also be part of Saturday's event.

On Saturday, speed will be the focus as crews rush to the pre-determined site at the Douglas County Justice Center. Riley said another big facet of the event center on efficient communication.

"In real life, when we make the Broken-Arrow call, it is a very, very tense situation," Riley said, noting that communications between agencies and other officials were huge hurdles first responders faced during the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

The chief said in large mutual-aid wildfires, crews are usually unfamiliar with terrain and local protocol. He said multiple radio frequencies could come into play and confusion could ensue.

"We need to be synchronized," he said. "We need to be on the same page."

Upon arrival at the Justice Center on Saturday, the 30 fire engines and their crews will receive a safety briefing just as they would in a real emergency.

Riley said no sirens will be blaring as the engines are en route because officials don't want people to think there's an actual fire.

"We want to do the simulation, but we want to be safe," he said.

Because quick response is the point of the exercise, the fire chief said immediate action by everyday citizens will also help avoid disaster during a real wildfire event.

"Please be vigilant," Riley said. "If you see smoke. Call 911 immediately and let us investigate."

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