Preparing for a potential disaster |

Preparing for a potential disaster

Traci J. Macnamara
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado – Last fall’s spill of a semi truck’s flammable hazardous material on westbound Vail Pass mistakenly stirred questions in the Vail community about water quality and safety. The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District assured residents that drinking water remained safe and was never in question, but the incident provided an opportunity for local response agencies and residents to test their preparedness for responding to and mitigating environmental hazards.

Winter storms, wildfire and flooding remain the top three environmental hazards as reported by Eagle County residents in a recent community survey, says Barry Smith, Eagle County’s Director of Emergency Management. The survey was conducted as part of the community’s pre-disaster mitigation planning efforts, in compliance with the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000.

With this legislation, the federal government placed renewed emphasis on pre-disaster mitigation of potential hazards, and Eagle County is required by Colorado state statutes to adopt an all-hazards “Emergency Operations Plan” to address how the response to major emergencies will occur.

The county is also responsible for communicating public warnings and information to residents in the event of an environmental emergency, but those living in the Vail community must do their part by knowing how to access that information and then respond appropriately.

An “Emergency Preparedness Network” telecommunications system is in place to call the landlines of an affected area and deliver an automated voice message with details about emergency response plans.

“Make sure that you listen to the message in its entirety when you’re called, and don’t hang up,” said Joe Ribeiro, director of the Vail Public Safety Communication Center.

Follow the instructions without calling 911 for more details, as emergency communicators are often overloaded in these moments sharing critical information with response agencies.

The system is limited to landlines, but the Eagle County Alert, or EC Alert, system provides emergency information to mobile devices. Community members can select notification preferences to receive immediate information via text message or email about urgent or emergency situations ranging from controlled burns to traffic accidents in the local area.

Residents should also practice being aware of their surroundings and heed variable message signs while driving on the interstate. Media outlets including local radio stations all receive current emergency information and EC Alerts, so community members can tune in for updates on the resolution of environmental emergencies as they occur.

But there’s perhaps even more good sense in preparing to confront an environmental hazard before it hits.

“Have a 72-hour disaster kit ready for you and your family, and develop an evacuation plan,” said Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger.

In the event of an environmental disaster such as a fire, a kit that contains three days of water, food, and emergency supplies is an important part of a sound emergency preparedness plan. Assemble a smaller version of the kit to keep in a vehicle as a safety precaution against winter storms, especially.

Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller stresses the importance of protecting homes preemptively by building a defensible space for wildfires. The Vail Fire Department, for example, can be enlisted for free by Vail residents to perform a Firewise property inspection, which includes tips on trimming vegetation, where to store woodpiles and combustibles, and how to identify dead or dying trees. Vail Fire also offers a free wood chipping service so that the trees homeowners cut down can be removed safely and expeditiously.

Although community members perceive flooding as one of the area’s top three environmental hazards, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District reports being well prepared to address this annual concern. The district keeps potential contamination problems in check by maintaining a great deal of flexibility and redundancy in their water and wastewater systems.

The district also has a method developed by engineers that calculates exactly how long a contamination event in a river will take before it arrives at their surface water intakes or wells. This travel time calculator helps them accurately track a problem and enables them to mitigate potential problems with precision.

“The smallness of this valley and the willingness of all agencies to work together in response to an emergency is a huge strength of our community,” says Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs Manager for the district.

This cooperative spirit can be enhanced when each person in this community does his or her part to prepare for environmental emergencies and respond when the moment calls for action.

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