Vail Daily column: Eagle County’s Special Operations Unit | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Eagle County’s Special Operations Unit

James van Beek

The Special Operations Unit is Eagle County’s Special Forces. Similar to other Special Forces teams, it’s called when extreme danger is imminent. As others are directed to leave due to hazardous circumstances, the Special Operations Unit runs in.

Terrorism, hostage situations, crisis negotiations, active shooters, explosives, high-risk narcotics apprehensions, dangerous rural manhunts, dignitary protection and other critical incidents are part of the readiness training required of this elite, multi-jurisdictional team. It has a medical unit (two volunteer trauma surgeons and two paramedics) that is equally trained for officer and civilian emergencies.

While these situations are not daily occurrences, the Special Operations team must be ready and on call 24/7.

Eagle County’s veil of safety is protected by a group of dedicated officers who are willing to put themselves on the line for the safety of their neighbors. Every community has internal elements that can be dangerous, but we also are vulnerable to external threats due to the proximity of Interstate 70 and destination criminal activity (those who target our area with nefarious intentions). While locals who are simply going about their daily lives heavily travel the interstate, it is also a major thoroughfare across the country, thus increasing the possibility of a dangerous encounter.

Our Special Operations team is aware that some criminals are attracted to low-crime areas, under the false assumption that they may conduct their activities with impunity. When these actions are discovered, there is an intensity that can quickly develop, requiring more than traditional law enforcement procedures. Often in attempting to contain a situation, innocents can be inadvertently placed in danger, requiring the most advanced and specialized equipment and tactical skills.

Special Operations is made up of volunteer officers with at least five years’ experience from the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, the Vail Police Department and Avon Police Department. The training is intense, frequent and often held on the officer’s day off. Initial certifications last about two months, with annual matrix training and weekly fitness and skills sessions.

Helicopter and heavy-equipment instruction is often conducted at nearby military installations. Learning to navigate a mine-resistant ambush protected or peacekeeper protected response vehicle is nothing like driving your average SUV; even the doors require a special hydraulics system to operate. Special Operations will periodically receive specialized instruction at Quantico. When the nation’s critical incident levels change, the team is put on high alert, with statewide responsibility.

Expectations are strongest within these officers, as they acknowledge they are the ones called in when all other attempts have failed; fellow officers rely upon their added training and readiness for survival. Their main mission is to save lives. The team realizes that it must be able to operate alone, as we are in a rural area, at least two hours from the nearest urban center. Outside support may not be available.

Those who join this Special Operations Unit are exceptionally dedicated to the community, willing to place themselves in the most extreme danger for the protection of others, disciplined, highly motivated, driven by challenge and honored by the privilege to serve. Pushing the limits of fitness is a daily commitment, which they complete with pride. Wearing a 73-pound vest for hours, under extreme tension, must become effortless. These are can-do people.

The equipment used is designed for the safest and quickest resolution possible, with the least amount of risk. Some of it is military grade and designed for the most intense confrontations. It is unlikely that you will see this unit in operation, but it is available to be deployed anywhere in Eagle County. Special Operations works in partnership with the Vail Mountain Rescue Group, First Responder teams, neighboring law enforcement agencies and in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Each police department provides the budget for its officers, with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office contributing the bulk of the cost, including most of the equipment. This joint venture is critical to the overall safety of the entire community and region. The success of this team is heavily reliant upon the sheriff, police chiefs, town managers and city councils. We are grateful to our community partners for their participation and to the men and women of this elite Special Operations Unit.

James Van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at james.vanbeek@eaglecounty.us.