On Dec. 20, 2006, winds between 20 and 35 mph, and up to 4 feet of snow hit Colorado. The blizzard caused power outages, closed schools and business offices, and shut down the Denver International Airport, which became a hotel to 4,700 travelers whose flights were cancelled.
"We're dealing with an area of about 3 million people, and we received between 2 and 3 feet of snow in a 36-hour period," said George Epp, director of the Colorado Division of Emergency Management. "And that snow was accompanied by sustained winds out of the north for most of the time."
Because the Rocky Mountain area is accustomed to winter conditions -- and thanks to National Weather Service warnings -- the coordination among emergency management personnel, first responders and the Colorado Army National Guard went according to emergency response plans.
Agencies at multiple levels of government moved quickly and proactively to begin joint response operations before the first snowflakes had even hit the ground. In addition, a coordinated communications plan fed accurate and appropriate emergency information to the media for public distribution.
On the flip side, the experience showed the need for better coordination of volunteer resources and a need to break established protocol when situations demand it.
Spreading the Word
After the National Weather Service warned of an impending blizzard, the Colorado Division of Emergency Management got the word out to citizens early, Epp said. "One of the human nature difficulties we have is that people never actually believe the forecast is going to happen until it's a little bit late," he said. "It was a normal workday and a few days before Christmas, so people got caught trying to get home from shopping or work."
In Denver, Justin DeMello, director of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, said the National Weather Service warnings helped a great deal.
"Our public works folks got out there well before the first snowflake," he said. "They were out there hours before the snow, prepping the streets, so that made the icy conditions a lot less, and made it easier for snow plowing."
Next, the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management advised people to get home early and persisted with that message in the local media -- not only in Denver, but across the entire front range of the Rockies, DeMello said.
"We opened up a joint information center [JIC] here in Denver," he said. "Our policy is when we open up the EOC [Emergency Operations Center], we open up the JIC at the same time, and they immediately started crafting messages for the media on what we wanted them to do and kept hounding that to the media. The media was great in this. They're a huge team member here, so they relayed that message to the citizens and it really helped."
The Colorado Division of Emergency Management began staffing its EOC about an hour after the snow started, Epp said, and about 20 different city and county EOCs were open, such as the one in Denver. The state transportation department center is always open, he said, and the regional transportation district staffed its center.
After getting the message out, local governments and businesses shut down early. "What saved us, I think, is that a lot of people heeded that message," DeMello said. "They got home and weathered the storm at home."
Rush hour on Wednesday was the worst part of the storm, he said, because a number of major highways had shut down. "The blizzard was pretty much at its height, and people were just abandoning their cars in the traffic lanes," Epp said. "We had about 120 of our regional transportation buses that were stranded, and we began opening shelters."
The state Division of Emergency Management mobilized resources to get people from where they were stranded into shelters in the urban areas. In rural parts of the state, the challenge was search and rescue missions for people stranded amid the storm.
On Dec. 21, 2006, operations were smoother for the Colorado Army National Guard than they had been on Dec. 20, said Commanding General, Maj. Gen. Mason Whitney, adding that the National Guard works closely with the Colorado Division of Emergency Management in any state emergency. "Basically the state EOCs are tasking organizations -- they're our higher headquarters to speak of. So they task us with missions we need to go out and perform."
The National Guard's first job was search and rescue for those stranded and in danger, Epp said. The state Division of Emergency Management also used the National Guard to transport people with urgent medical needs -- delivering oxygen and getting dialysis patients to dialysis centers, for example. "The third-order mission for the National Guard was to assist with opening highways," he said. "They did a little bit of that, but mostly it was state and local law enforcement and the highway department."
A day after the storm hit, government officials were still urging people to stay inside and off the roads because the possibility of getting stuck remained. "And we still have emergency operations going on right now," Whitney said on Dec. 21. "We've got about 18 National Guard vehicles -- Humvees, SUSVs, which are snow cats, snow utility sustainment vehicles -- that are helping out throughout the state, most of it here in Denver, however."
Most stranded citizens call 911 on their cell phones to let emergency operations personnel in that county know where they are, what their conditions are and how fast they need to be rescued, Whitney said. Then the emergency operations personnel relay the information to the state EOC, which is tied directly to the joint operations center in the National Guard headquarters in Centennial, Colo.
The National Guard's SUSVs drove on side roads to help ambulances get through to people who required emergency medical support, and its Humvees and trucks took supplies to shelters throughout the Denver metro area, as well as resupplying Denver International Airport, where several thousand people were trapped because of runway closures, Whitney said, adding that all of these tasks are protocol during snow emergencies.
"We've had our plan in place for the last several days, and we knew there was going to be a pretty serious snowstorm," he said. "We weren't sure exactly how much snow we were going to get -- this is actually more than we anticipated -- but we had our guys prepared, and we had small mobility teams already set up and identified with the equipment and supplies they needed to perform those emergency operations throughout the state."
Rather than forcing reporters to dig for blizzard-related information, the JIC in Denver crafted messages for the media to send out to the public.
All city departments in Denver provide the JIC -- located within the EOC -- with a public information officer (PIO), DeMello said. "So all these departments craft the messages we need to get out there," he said. "And so, in this event, because we don't want anyone out there during a blizzard, police, fire and EMS would craft this very direct message to tell the public to stay out of harm's way."
The PIOs write news releases and call media representatives to convey the message. They also answer questions so reporters aren't searching for a message. "We're giving them the message," DeMello said. "So I think that was a good piece here. We are fortunate not to have a whole lot of stranded folks, so I think that early message and obviously the benefit of the EOC's close coordination among the agencies enabled that."
Communication is key in disasters, DeMello said. "The procedures we use convey that you can be successful in the EOC, but if things aren't communicated well to the public -- whether it be during the event or pre-event -- you're sort of spinning your wheels. So I think you should have a plan in place to open up a joint information center as fast as you do an EOC, and then coordinate that message very early and really show the emphasis that public safety is a concern. Their safety is why we're here."
Colorado is experimenting with computer software known as WebEOC, which allows users to log events, requests and reports electronically so everyone gets the information, Epp said. "We have it here at the state, and we've provided it and training to most of the larger counties' and cities' emergency managers and their staff."
It is the Division of Emergency Management's first experience using the system. Epp said the tool produced fairly good results. "We were able to keep our event logs well up to date, and the info was accessible to everybody, so it really helped in the overall communications picture."
"We also learned some lessons and have some more work to do on training and refining that system," he said.
In Denver, the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management is not yet a part of the WebEOC system, DeMello said, but the office is looking at it. "We just had a demonstration about 10 days ago," he said. "I know the state is looking for everyone to get on it, and we're in the process of making the decision to utilize that."
Though personnel in the Colorado Division of Emergency Management received training, Epp said the first lesson he learned is that they need to do more training. "Not everybody was up to speed, or people had been trained and they'd forgotten."
Despite a few hiccups, WebEOC is something Epp said he wants to use in the future. "It's a huge leap forward from the systems we've used before."
Next Time ...
Overall, DeMello said, everyone is pleased with the response to the December blizzards. "Not to say that it has been easy," he added. "Obviously the citizens are having to deal with digging out of their homes and their cars, but as far as disasters or blizzards go, I think we've fared pretty well."
Still, there are lessons to be learned post-disaster. "Internal procedures -- there are always ways to streamline certain things, and the advantage to doing what we do is we look for the most flexible people to be engaged," DeMello said. "So as we saw something that may not be as quick or flexible as we like, we adjusted the procedure right then and there, and made it happen. And I think that's what you have to have -- you have a plan in place, and procedures in place, but you also don't live or die by those. Be flexible enough because the outcome is not predicated on the procedures. The outcome is based on the outcome, and that's all that's acceptable."
At the state level, the Division of Emergency Management identified some things that need fine-tuning but didn't find major gaps, Epp said. The biggest issue was that the state didn't do as well as it could in tracking volunteer resources that could be used for transportation through heavy snow -- such as four-wheel-drive clubs, privately owned snowmobiles and snow cats, he said.
"The result of that is we were getting calls from hospitals saying, 'Could you help us transport our nurses back and forth to work?' Or the dialysis center calling to say, 'We've got 50 patients scheduled for dialysis today, can you help us get them in and out?'" Epp said. "This is a lesson we've learned in prior blizzards -- that we need to have both in our local EOCs and the state some ready resources. And what happened is that after the last blizzard, we did a good job of organizing that, but time went by and it wasn't used. Then the next blizzard hits six years later, and the lists are out of date and the people who put them together are no longer in their positions."
In addition to keeping resource lists updated, Epp noted that maintaining current phone lists for critical personnel is also essential. The division overcame that obstacle, but made a note to correct it.
The state Division of Emergency Management has put a lot of personnel through Incident Command System and National Incident Management System training in the last few years, both of which emphasize a rigid chain of command. But Epp said circumstances sometimes demand a break from protocol. For instance, he recommends that emergency personnel be proactive in contacting their superiors if it seems they've been overlooked
"Ask them if they've forgotten, because sometimes they did," he said. "There's hesitancy on people's parts sometimes to take the initiative to communicate because they've been taught a protocol that says you shouldn't gum up the channels with unnecessary communication. But if you're the guy who should be called because of something, and it's obvious to you that they need to and they haven't called, get on the phone."