“A critical incident is not the time to learn how to set up an EOC (emergency operations center). It’s also certainly not the time to find out our politicians can’t work together.”
— Brett Barkey, 14th Judicial District Attorney, about Craig and Moffat County’s preparedness to respond to a natural disaster or mass tragedy.
Craig Colorado experienced more than its fair share of tragedies in 2012.
A mild winter resulted in the most active wildfire season in state history and fueled in June the two most destructive blazes on record.
A month later, while firefighters were trying to contain the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires, a 25-year-old man walked into the Century Theater in Aurora during a midnight showing of “The Dark Night Rises” and opened fire, killing 12 people and wounding dozens more.
In the wake of tragedy it’s not uncommon for the public to engage in certain conversations. Some, like the gun control debate at the state Capitol, have been criticized as knee-jerk reactions, attempting to Band-Aid a problem without addressing the more serious underlying issues.
Others conversations are more productive. On Wednesday, 19 officials from a variety of local and state public safety organizations convened at the Moffat County Public Safety Center. The meeting, organized by Craig resident Gene Bilodeau, was called to determine Craig and Moffat County’s preparedness to respond to and recover from a large-scale natural disaster or a mass shooting.
Those in attendance resoundingly agreed that Craig and Moffat County are sufficiently prepared to respond to disasters.
In addition to having a county-wide emergency operating plan in place, which outlines how to respond to a variety of crisis scenarios and is consistently updated by Moffat County Office of Emergency Management Director Tom Soos, Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta said Northwest Colorado is fortunate that its public safety agencies work well together.
That’s not always the case in other parts of Colorado, particularly on the Front Range.
In the days after the Aurora theater shooting, Vanatta said reports began to surface that although a number of public safety agencies from neighboring counties and municipalities responded to the scene, few actually provided care to the victims for fear of upsetting the balance of jurisdictional politics.
Even if Craig and Moffat County are prepared to respond to a large-scale emergency, recovering from one is another story. Once the last reporters and TV crews leave the scene of a tragedy, the community is often left to figure out how to recover.
Fourteenth Judicial District Attorney Brett Barkey said more often than not, and certainly in the case of a mass shooting, the bulk of a community’s resources goes toward providing long-term mental health services for victims and first responders.
Citing the Aurora Theater shooting, Vanatta said that as of Feb. 1, the city of Aurora has spent $2.5 million in its recovery efforts, the majority of that money funding mental health services.
“My greatest concern from a DA’s Office perspective is our lack of mental health resources,” Barkey said. “I’m concerned about our ability to provide services to the broader community to help them recover from a tragedy.”
Of equal concern is the lack of community knowledge about how to establish an emergency operations center.
Unlike an incident command post, which is set up at a scene and serves as a rallying point for first responders to develop a strategy of attack and to delegate their respective resources, an EOC is an offsite location manned by city managers, local elected officials and public information officers.
The purpose of an EOC is to address what Chuck Vale, of the Colorado Office of Emergency Management, called the “people problems,” such as acquiring food, clothing and shelter for victims; coordinating state and federal aid; and dispersing information to the public.
Though the training room in the Moffat County Public Safety Center is designed to function as an EOC, it’s only been used for that purpose once since it opened in 2001.
Vanatta, and others, proposed scheduling drills to provide community leaders an opportunity to practice scenarios that would require establishing an EOC.
Citing conversations with the District Attorney’s Office in Colorado Springs, Barkey agreed, saying that during the Waldo Canyon Fire local elected officials wasted a lot of time quibbling about who would be in charge, and therefore who could grab the national spotlight, rather than coordinating the help their residents needed.
“A critical incident is not the time to learn how to set up an EOC,” Barkey said. “It’s also certainly not the time to find out our politicians can’t work together.”
After the meeting, Bilodeau said he was pleased with the more than hour-long discussion, but he admitted it raised more questions than it answered.
He plans to schedule a second critical incident response meeting in April and is working with Craig City Manager Jim Ferree to bring in a representative from Aurora’s 7/20 Recovery Committee to talk about the lessons learned from the theater shooting and the recovery programs the city has implemented in the months since the tragedy.
Joe Moylan can be reached at 970-875-1794 or firstname.lastname@example.org.