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June 14, 2013
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FEMA helps Eagle County prepare for worst

EAGLE — What if a tanker truck crashed and a train derailed during the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships?

That’s among the many scenarios the Federal Emergency Management Agency used to train local and regional emergency personnel in coordinating responses to huge disasters.

For good measure, once the aforementioned disasters were underway, the FEMA folks decided a fictional stage should collapse in Vail Village during a concert performance.

It may sound like fiction, but for the local law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, the FBI and FEMA, the training is quite real.

“We work with all levels of government to help the nation prepare for the unforeseen,” said FEMA’s Paul Ganem, who’s helping coordinate the training.

FEMA conducts similar sessions in its Emmitsburg, Md., headquarters three or four times a year. Every now and then they take their show on the road to places like Eagle County, but the teaching philosophy is identical, Ganem said.

“Everyone says, ‘This can’t happen here,’ but it can happen here so let’s prepare for it,” said Barry Smith, Eagle County’s emergency management director.

Worst case scenario, best case results

Their training scenario is complex and may sound far-fetched. As the world’s eyes are on the county for the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships, an Amtrak train derails and dozens are injured and killed. About the same time, a tanker truck wrecks and gushes hazardous materials all over Interstate 70.

It’s important to over-prepare because when disaster strikes, teams from other areas will need to integrate as seamlessly as possible, Smith said.

Wildfires have at least five Colorado counties running these emergency command centers right now, Smith said.

“Every agency has a management structure already in place that we work through on a daily basis,” said Lt. Greg Daly with the Avon Police Department. “Training like this helps us integrate them.”

There is also a financial team keeping an eye on what things cost – not to veto things but to make sure everyone understands what handling the disaster costs and what resources are available, Smith said.

“This scenario may seem a bit far-fetched, but no matter what the situation, at some point you’re going to run out of local resources,” Smith said.

Fighting the Black Forest fire burning near Colorado Springs is costing around $2 million a day for just the ground assault, Smith said.

“We used to say, ‘Send help until I say stop.’ Now, with training like this, we have a much firmer grasp on what will be necessary, and when,” Smith said.

There’s even a communications team to make sure the public and media are getting accurate information, Smith said.

A few years ago when a sinkhole closed part of Interstate 70 near East Vail, word went out that the it was closed. It wasn’t, and wasn’t going to be.

“It takes three times as much work to correct something than it does to make sure the correction information goes out in the first place,” Smith said. “That’s why we do these exercises. Every time we do one we learn how to do something better.”

For now, the equipment for Smith’s Eagle County command center is close at hand and he can set it up in about 45 minutes. Before long, though, it will be integrated into a computer lab in the Eagle County Building where Smith said he will be able to get it rolling in about four minutes.

FEMA courses like this one are three-day exercises for emergency responders to practice communicating amongst command centers maned by mayors; city, county and emergency managers; fire, police and public safety chiefs; public works, EMS and public health managers and other community services providers.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935, and rwyrick@vaildaily.com


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The VailDaily Updated Jun 15, 2013 10:21AM Published Jun 15, 2013 10:21AM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.