Wildfire training exercise involved almost 200 people from 18 agencies | VailDaily.com

Wildfire training exercise involved almost 200 people from 18 agencies

VAIL — Almost 200 emergency responders and medical personnel spent a day practicing what they might do if stuff goes wrong, because stuff always does.

This event was earlier this month in Vail's Potato Patch neighborhood — hence the name "Hot Potato" — and brought together more than 60 participants from 18 agencies, and another 100 Vail Valley Medical Center staffers.

The exercise simulated a wildfire, a neighborhood evacuation and a mock structure fire with injuries and public alerts. Among other things, they tested real-time emergency response and coordination between fire agencies, law enforcement and support agencies.

It was so realistic, the Salvation Army even prepared lunch.

Vail's Packy Walker has lived in Potato Patch for years. He received a reverse 911 call Tuesday morning telling him to leave his house.

"It was a needed training exercise. They were happy with it, and I'm grateful they did it," Walker said.

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The exercise included a door-to-door canvass of the Potato Patch neighborhood on the north side of Interstate 70 to simulate a mandatory evacuation.

"The teamwork we saw in the field was excellent with great attention paid to safety and a quick response," said Paul Cada, Vail's wildland program administrator.

At Vail Valley Medical Center, they had an everything-goes-wrong scenario.

Theirs involved smoke in the main hospital, an influx of 35 patients in various facilities and an IT network system failure. More than 100 medical center staffers juggled the drill with caring for patients they already had.

"Exercises like this are essential to our commitment to the safety of our patients, employees and guests and the health of our community," said Doris Kirchner, Vail Valley Medical Center president and CEO. "Collaborating with our partners and testing our plans and systems in a drill of this scale is invaluable to our ongoing efforts in the areas of safety and emergency preparedness."

There's only one road out of Potato Patch, so while they can get a pretty good idea what might happen, you can't tell unless there's a real fire and people are fleeing in a blind panic, Walker said. Still, he and other Potato Patch residents gave the exercise high marks.

"Several of the residents agreed to actively participate in today's evacuation, which was very helpful," Cada said. "We learned prepared citizens greatly increase the speed at which we can conduct evacuations. There were good questions from the neighborhood about the evacuation preparation."

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