Flash Point: The Nature of Emergency Management

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Officials make announcements about the Waldo Canyon Fire during the 8 p.m. press conference, June 26, 2012 Pictured from L-R: Jerri Marr, US Forest Service; Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey; Incident Commander Rich Harvey; El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa; Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach. Photo: Andrea Chalfin

 

 

A Disaster Is A Disaster: The Nature Of Emergency Management

By Andrea Chalfin • April 22, 2013

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Listen to the piece here, or download by right-clicking this link.

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Colorado Springs officials recently released their Final After Action Report, detailing the city’s response during the Waldo Canyon Fire. Authors studied hours of dispatch tape, personal accounts, and logs to assess what the city did right, and what needs improvement. The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office also did the same. But a disaster lends itself to unpredictability, and as such, requires emergency management personnel to be flexible.

“There’s no template for a disaster,” says Bret Waters, the director of the Colorado Springs Office of Emergency Management, or OEM. “The inherent nature of it is unpredictable sometimes. It’ll change rapidly and you may have limited information to make decisions.” As such, Waters says the ability to adapt is critical.

Gov. Hickenlooper at Sun 06/24/12 press conference. (KC O’Connor)

Emergency managers often employ plans that are considered “all-hazard,” which builds in flexibility, says Brian Gerber, head of the Emergency Management concentration within the Master’s of Public Administration at the University of Colorado-Denver.

“You want to be able to cover a very wide range of hazards,” Gerber says, “that in essence it doesn’t matter why it happened…you just have to be prepared for all those different types of hazards.”

The theory holds true for Waters, who says the city generally plans for all hazards, but calls wildfire, flash flooding, and winter weather “the big three.” Tornadoes to a lesser extent. Waters says the OEM kicks in typically when multiple agencies are involved, and during the Waldo Canyon Fire, the OEM engaged right as the fire response began, and evacuations were issued. As the fire grew, so did the number of agencies responding.

“You have everything from Manitou Springs, El Paso County to the state of Colorado, to forest service land, and so you have a multitude of jurisdictions working on the same Waldo Canyon Fire,” Waters says. “To ensure communication between those agencies, again, something that we were involved with.”And as much as communications was listed as a highlight in the After Action Report, it was also listed as a place for improvement. Waters isn’t surprised.

“We’re gonna know that with any event, particularly in changing technology, the communication is always going to be an issue. The challenge,” Waters says, “will always be ‘how do you communicate with the public, and even internally to responders, everybody else, effectively with changing technology and changing ways they get information?’”

US Secretaries Janet Napolitano and Tom Vilsack with Mayor Steve Bach. Photo: A. Chalfin.

The sentiment is shared by the state Office of Emergency Management, as well as Todd Richardson, a Type II Incident Commander with the Bureau of Land Management. Richardson’s team helped the transition of firefighting to the federal Type I team.

“You might hear stories about ‘hey we didn’t respond together here or there,’” Richardson says. “That happens even in what we call a perfect case because, people are involved and so are ways of communicating.”

That highlights another complex issue of Emergency Management when it comes to large-scale incidents that begin on a local or regional level, according to Gerber.

“By definition,” Gerber says, “you’ve got to have a lot of complex interaction and coordination between units of government at the same level, and then across different levels of government.”

Gerber adds that while that might sound complex and unsatisfying, it’s necessary because the U.S. is a place-based emergency management model- a house fire is responded to by the local fire department, a traffic accident by the police department, and so on. So training for large-scale disasters, which are often low frequency but high consequence, can be challenging.

Bret Waters says they do that and will do more of that, and they also send personnel to assist in disasters nationwide. But as much realism they try to build in, it’s simply not the real thing.

“You can do as much as you can and try to put the stressors there,” Waters says, ”and we do that, but I think it’s a two-pronged approach. One is to do exercises, but if there is an event we want to assist, but also, experience is the best teacher to some extent.”

That’s not to minimize the consequences. But for the nearly 350 homes lost, and the two fatalities, many agree that it could have been much, much worse.

Gerber says a zero-risk standard simply isn’t reasonable. “To say that if life gets lost that somebody didn’t do their job well is not really a fair standard,” he says. “And again, it’s a much more complicated question than usually makes its way into the public discourse, because there are so many other factors involved.”

Factors like mitigation and recovery, part and parcel to emergency management, which Waters takes seriously. And it’s an issue of personal responsibility. Colorado’s Emergency Manager Dave Hard, as well as Brian Gerber and Bret Waters agree that it’s imperative for individuals to understand their own risks, and be prepared, through personal and neighborhood mitigation and emergency plans.

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EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT DURING WALDO CANYON FIRE

• #WaldoCanyonFire: Twitter Use During The Fire

• El Paso County After Action Review and Waldo Canyon Smoke Investigation

• Federal Firefighters: A National Perspective

• The Voice of the Waldo Canyon Fire: The Incident Commander’s Point of View

• Is an Independent Third Party Review Necessary?

• Colorado Springs Waldo Canyon Fire Final After Action Report

• After Action Report- Emergency Notification System (E911) [.pdf]


NATIONAL FIRE FIGHTING & HAZARDS INFORMATION

• US Fire Administration (FEMA)

• Forest Service – Fire and Aviation Management

• National Interagency Fire Center

• Natural Hazards Center- CU Boulder


EMERGENCY PLANNING RESOURCES

• Ready Colorado

• Pack a Kit

• Pack a Kit (Spanish)

• Ready,Set,Go!

• Plan for Pets in Advance of an Emergency

• Build a Kit


#WaldoCanyonFire: Twitter Use During The Fire

achey2The use of Twitter during the Waldo Canyon Fire was so widespread that Colorado Springs officials recognized it as a tool in its After Action Report. But while a number of governmental and public safety organizations linked together during the incident and released information simultaneously, Kristina Clark Achey says Twitter could serve an even stronger purpose. Achey is a graduate student at UCCS, studying the use of the social media tool during the Waldo Canyon Fire. KRCC’s Andrea Chalfin sat down with her to talk about the trends, challenges, and opportunities for communication strategies with Twitter. (Right click here to download.)

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Hazards, Emergency Response, and Online Informal Communication (HEROIC) analyzes #waldocanyonfire hashtag on Twitter.
HEROIC Team Explores Waldo Canyon Wildfire in Colorado

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El Paso County After Action Review and Waldo Canyon Smoke Investigation

Maketa_AAREl Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa recently released the county’s After Action Report, detailing strengths and challenges for county services during the Waldo Canyon Fire. During that press conference, Sheriff Maketa talked about reports of smoke that came in Friday, June 22, and what agencies did to locate the source of that smoke. You can listen to that audio here, or download by right-clicking this link.

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For the full audio of the press conference, listen here.

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Federal Firefighters: A National Perspective

RichardsonTodd Richardson is a Fuels Operations Specialist in Colorado for the Bureau of Land Management, and a Type II Incident Commander for Rocky Mountain Area Team A. KRCC’s Andrea Chalfin spoke with Richardson to learn about how federal firefighters respond to incidents, how they work in coordination with regional and local firefighting efforts, and how decisions are made in regards to federal resources when multiple fires are burning across the country. Here’s the full conversation.

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The Voice of the Waldo Canyon Fire: The Incident Commander’s Point of View

CaptainRikerCSFD_recountsMtnShadows_fromfinalAfterActionReportPresser CroppedCaptain Steve Riker with the Colorado Springs Fire Department provides a first-hand account of what happened on June 26, 2012. Captain Riker was the Incident Commander for the fire department at that time, and was stationed near Wilson Tank in Mountain Shadows. Fire Chief Rich Brown has called Captain Riker “the Voice of the Waldo Canyon Fire,” for his constant communication on dispatch radio. Listen here, or download. (Recording comes from the press conference at the release of the city’s Final After Action Report.)

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Is an Independent Third Party Review Necessary?

BrianGerberWhen the city released its initial After Action Report in October, some called for an independent 3rd party review, an idea that’s been dismissed by Mayor Steve Bach (see below). KRCC’s Andrea Chalfin asked Brian Gerber, head of the Emergency Management Concentration within the Master’s of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado-Denver, what he thought.

One of the criticisms regarding the initial After Action Report is that it’s an internal report. In your opinion, is a third-party review necessary?

Not necessarily, because… the folks in Colorado Springs are following the standard model, and it’s really difficult for a 3rd party to come in after the fact and do an effective review. It’s not that it’s impossible, but it’s difficult, and the issue is, how well or how accurate those After Action Reports can be, and the standard internal review is probably as effective as a 3rd party review…If I was to go in, for instance, say several months later after the incident and try to reconstruct, there’s some things that I can find and other things that I can’t find that I don’t have that kind of direct knowledge of and understanding of. So it’s not necessarily a perfect system, but it’s a reasonably good system for learning, and that’s really the whole purpose: to help identify weaknesses in any kind of response system to improve for future incidents and that the standard after action report model generally does a pretty good job of that.

Colorado Springs Business Journal: Fire Report Doesn’t Finish City’s Story
Colorado Springs Independent: Misfire
Colorado Springs Independent: Fire Proof
Colorado Springs Independent: Bach: No outside review of Waldo fire needed

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Main Flash Point: Living with Wildfire page
• A Disaster Is A Disaster: The Nature Of Emergency Management
Waldo Canyon Fire Victims: Recovering Without Rebuilding
The Wildland Urban Interface: Where the Wilderness Meets Civilization
The Double Bind: Forest Treatment In The Age of Megafires
Wildfires and Climate Change Perception