Licensed-care facilities are mandated by state and federal law to write and maintain emergency plans. Most states, however, don't require any specific level of detail, and officials often fail to check whether such plans are workable.

As emergency management agencies in Colorado's north central region learned, many care facilities had what amounted to expanded fire drill policies masquerading as emergency plans.

"People expect first responders to just show up and take care of everything," said Tim Johnson, emergency management coordinator for the Douglas County Office of Emergency Management in Castle Rock, Colo. "But guess what? During an emergency, they're a little busy. So it's important that these facilities know how to take care of their people."

In Colorado, licensed facilities are required to have an emergency plan, but they're not required to go further than that, Johnson confirmed. "It doesn't say what's required to be in the plan," he said. "And what we've found is that while most have a plan to get their people out of the building, they don't know what to do with them afterward."

This fact was highlighted in a 2005 fire in Arapahoe County, just north of the Denver metropolitan area, in a small, eight-bed assisted living facility, Johnson said.

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