With the balmy fall weather in Colorado this year, it might be difficult to envision a severe winter storm knocking out power for days, stranding motorist in vehicles, and grounding rescue helicopters, but that was the scenario playing out in Elbert County on Oct. 20.
While the rest of the county's residents enjoyed temperatures in the 70s outside, the team inside the Elbert County Emergency Operations Center was battling heavy snow, subzero temperatures and 60 mph winds, creating whiteout conditions.
The exercise, dubbed Operation Old Man Winters, was part of a planned emergency-response drill to test the county's ability to handle a severe winter event designated by the National Weather Service as a storm with the potential for loss of life. First responders and officials from county and state agencies implemented the county's Emergency Operations Plan as the simulation progressed.
Brandon Linderink, the director of Elbert County Emergency Management, explained the process.
“As an incident grows, each municipality reaches its limit to provide for public safety. The municipalities must declare to the county. If the county reaches its limit or that possibility appears imminent, the county then reaches out for help from the state.”
Once a county “declares,” state help can range from simply redirecting snowplows to mobilizing the Colorado Army National Guard. Other assistance can include funding to pay for cleanup following a storm. Linderink cites last year's late-summer floods in Boulder as an example of the State of Colorado coming to the aid of a county.
Not everything during the drill went according to plan. The crash of an aging communications network hampered the team's ability to respond to simulated calls for help, and the operations team turned to ham radio operators for communication.
In his comments to the Board of County Commissioners at its biweekly meeting Oct. 23, Ed Ehmann, Elbert County manager, said the team worked well together and adapted to the technology challenges. Ehmann also assured the commissioners that a three-year plan was already in place to update and replace ageing equipment.
Linderink agreed with Ehmann's assessment of the exercise and added, “There is always some kind of gap. We'll look at how to build the technology so it won't fail; and continue to increase the skills of the individuals sitting at the table.”
Linerink continually emphasizes citizen preparedness in the event of a natural or manmade disaster. He encourages every household to maintain a basic disaster kit with at least 72 hours of supplies. A visit to the website Ready.gov can provide guidance for items that should be included in a kit.
In addition, he recommends signing up for Code Red, the county's reverse 911 service that “keeps residents and businesses informed of emergencies and other time-sensitive information.”