County holds drills for emergency responders
EAGLE COUNTY — It was a busy day for Eagle County’s emergency responders. There was an investigation of suspicious unattended baggage at Beaver Creek. That was followed by multiple traffic accidents on Interstate 70 resulting in road closures, a fatality and multiple injuries. There was an influx of people at the medical center with symptoms that included nausea and vomiting. Midday, police were called to the scene as a shooter was reported at a major public plaza. And that was just before lunch.
The calls were all part of a simulated training exercise that involved more than 30 agencies, spanning from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Vail Valley Foundation, and more than 200 local emergency responders. The full-scale emergency preparedness exercise began Tuesday and goes through Wednesday. It was designed to drill the agencies in the event of a real emergency.
The exercises were designed to test real response times, iron out cross-agency procedures and help coordinate the best way to send out emergency alerts to the public.
Command centers were set up around the valley to deal with the “emergencies,” with the main incident command center at the Vail Police Department, a joint information center in Avon and an emergency operations unit in Eagle. The day was as much about working out kinks in equipment and coordinating emergency procedures as it was about responding to the situations.
“These trainings are a lot about planned systems and procedures,” said exercise coordinator Stephanie Palmer. “We’re not focusing on what a person did or didn’t do — it’s about how one agency’s plan meshes and works with other agencies. The complexity of an exercise like this is when we bring in statewide and federal partners. It’s complex with jurisdiction, with who covers what and making sure we’re not duplicating efforts.”
Prepping for 2015
Those mock scenarios — shooters, missing people, etc. — may not sound like a typical day in Eagle County, but then again, authorities don’t expect that the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, coming to Vail and Beaver Creek in February, will be your typical event.
The Championships were the backdrop for the training exercise, starting with a scenario Tuesday morning in which security checked people’s bags at the Beaver Creek Covered Bridge. Unattended packages were left at a bag checkpoint and security, and ski championship organizers and law enforcement had to determine if the packages were a threat.
The eastern end of the valley does annual emergency training days on a smaller scale, but it is rare to have all the county’s agencies participate, said Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger.
“This is the fourth exercise we’ve done around the Ski Championships. We’re just identifying things we need to work on,” he said. “Currently there are no threats to the Championships, but sporting events do have a higher profile, with the things going on around the world today and especially after the Boston Marathon bombing.”
Practice scenarios, real responses
Palmer, an independent emergency-preparedness consultant with S3 Partnerships, is at the helm of the entire exercise. She and her team created all the real-world scenarios for the drills and sent out the “calls” throughout the day to emergency responders. Some scenarios were simple, such as responding to reports of shots fired, which turned out to be nearby hunters.
Others involved volunteer actors and going through real protocol at the scene of the disaster. In one scenario, a woman with a gun staged a hostage situation in Vail, and authorities had to coordinate their efforts to evacuate the area. Today, responders will test their skills in the most catastrophic scenario so far — a plane crash with injuries at the Eagle County Regional Airport.
“For an exercise of this magnitude or size, it can take up to a year to plan and execute,” said Palmer.
She said that many agencies are required to test their disaster protocol on a regular basis anyway, and others just want the practice. County-wide trainings such as these help efficiently coordinate the necessary drills, said Palmer.
Citizens shouldn’t expect to be significantly impacted by the training, but officials said people can expect to see an increase in emergency responders during the training timeframe. Citizens might also receive test emergency messages via ECAlert during the exercises.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.