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A Disaster Is A Disaster: The Nature Of Emergency Management
By Andrea Chalfin
|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.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?’”
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.
|US Fire Administration (FEMA)Forest Service – Fire and Aviation Management
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