Eagle County’s emergency operations plan coordinates local, county, state, federal responses | VailDaily.com

Eagle County’s emergency operations plan coordinates local, county, state, federal responses

Eagle County workers man the Emergency Operations Center during the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The center has been activated 119 times from 2019 to the end of January, 2023.
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During the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire, Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry was talking to someone from outside the county who was impressed by the trust and communication between local agencies.

“It’s hard to build relationships during an emergency,” Chandler-Henry was told.

How it works

Here’s how emergency response works, in five steps:

  1. A local agency responds to an incident
  2. If needed, neighboring agencies jump in
  3. County officials coordinate the response at the next levels
  4. State and federal agencies are brought in as needed
  5. Local agencies wrap up the response

That trust is built when emergency alarms aren’t sounding, and that’s the point of the county’s emergency operations plan. The commissioners on Tuesday passed the latest version of that plan. The plan isn’t much different from those in place for the past four years, Eagle County Emergency Manager Birch Barron said.

Barron said the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends that counties update their plans every two years. This plan took a bit longer to bring to the commissioners, Barron said, noting that with a pandemic, wildfires and other emergencies, “we’ve had a lot going on.”

Emergency plans focus on how to build a response if needed, how to channel resources to the right places, and bring in outside help when needed.

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Barron briefed the commissioners on how responses ramp up if needed. The plan also shares responsibilities for responses.

For instance, if an Eagle County Sheriff’s deputy is the closest responder to a dispatch center call from a town, that deputy will respond first.

There are four distinct fire districts in the Eagle River Valley — based in Vail, Avon, Eagle and Gypsum — as well as town police departments and the county sheriff’s office.

“We want to make sure our system isn’t broken by (district boundaries),” Barron told the commissioners.

That results in a complex system, which is why agencies have to communicate and trust each other.

That hasn’t always been the case.

Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll came to that job after many years as Gypsum’s Town Manager. Shroll noted that years ago he’d seen fire district officials nearly come to blows over whose district had jurisdiction at a fire scene.

That isn’t the case anymore, Shroll said.

“Seeing how it operates… it works so easily — it’s never been like this,” Shroll said.

That cooperation comes from a lot of preparation for emergencies big and small.

Claire Noble, a public information officer for the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, noted there are quarterly exercises for various kinds of incidents.

Those incidents range from what assistant emergency manager Fernando Almanza called “normal-big” to “big-big.”

Almanza said while “normal-big” incidents can be catastrophic to affected individuals, they’re handled by local agencies.

The “big-big” incidents need outside support, from either other local agencies or, in extreme cases, help from state or federal agencies. That’s when the county’s emergency operations center is activated. Barron said that’s happened 119 times from 2019 through the end of January in 2023. The biggest share of those activations has been due to weather, followed by wildland fires and floods. Other incidents include search and rescue, structure fires, avalanches, and in one 2019 case, an earthquake in the lower Eagle River Valley. In that case, the operations center was opened “just to make sure everything was OK,” Barron said.

Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney was stuck on the Roaring Fork Valley side of the county Tuesday thanks to Monday’s daylong closure of Glenwood Canyon.

Via Zoom, McQueeney thanked Barron and Almanza for their work to create usable plans from a complicated system.

“None of this happens without a high degree of trust,” McQueeney said.

Shroll agreed, noting that the emergency response system has “never been in better hands — keep up the good work.”

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