Preparing For Major Regional Disasters

Photo by CR Chambers

by Rick Langenberg:


PPRH could serve as evacuation hub

What if a sudden Anthrax or Hepatitis attack invades Colorado Spring and the Front Range, or if a major natural fire or flooding disaster leaves thousands homeless in the Pikes Peak area?

What if a missile from North Korea or another hostile country takes out a major military installation, or if a disturbed teenager or adult tries to emulate the tragic episode from Newtown, Connecticut, with the prospects of massive casualties and hostages? What if a cyber-attack wipes out power supplies or an Al Qaeda spy infiltrates military circles in the region?

These questions and more were addressed last week during a local disaster preparation tour at the Pikes Peak Regional Hospital (PPRH), led by representatives of the National Resiliency Center (NRC), a nonprofit group that played a key role in responding to the mass shootings in the Century movie theater in Aurora in 2012. The group wants to establish an actual resiliency center, aimed at helping future disaster victims and emergency responders, and to assist with coordinating plans for major disasters.

The tour, which included a close look at the Pikes Peak Regional Hospital and Surgery Center, as a possible evacuation and emergency assistance hub, was capped by the arrival of a Black Hawk helicopter from Fort Carson on the PPRH helipad. This served as a preamble to a future disaster exercise that may require people to be promptly evacuated to the hospital, or to use the facility as the second-line of emergency defense. The exercise was attended by representatives from the military and Teller and El Paso counties, and an entire team of NRC representatives.

Dr. Richard Harris, one of the leading board members of PPRH, described preparing the hospital for multi-county disasters as a natural step for their facility. He said the hospital was originally designed for expansion pursuits and to serve as a mini-evacuation hub or mobile emergency center in times of a regional crisis

He sees this as a way to avoid the problems that unfolded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Nobody thought of ‘what if,’” said Harris, one of the main physicians in the area who led the campaign for a regional 24-hour hospital. He believes the hospital can play a key role in assistance during external threats to Colorado Springs and other nearby areas. “A lot of people head west (during disasters),” added Harris. “We could have a large influx of people and have to look at our level of requirements and what we can do about it.”

Representatives of the NRC, who have been involved in several nationally publicized tragic shootings in Colorado and across the nation, stressed that natural disasters, chemical/biological attacks and terrorist threats are a growing reality, even for Teller residents. And with Colorado Springs housing so many key military installations, such as NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and the U.S. Air Force, they noted that the Pikes Peak region is on the radar for potential missile and nuclear attacks. Next to Washington D.C., the Pikes Peak region is rated as number two on the national threat list, according to the NRC. “Bombings, shootings and disasters are a way of life,” said Colt Simmons, a retired colonel of the Air Force and a representative of NRC. “You can’t hide from it anymore.” Simmons also released details of new biological threats, entitled “The Kims’ Little Shop of Horrors.” “These little babies can do so much damage,” he added, in describing a list of 20-plus biological agents that North Korea could inflict upon the region, without even resorting to missile attacks.

Besides developing a disaster plan for the entire region, with the hospital serving as a central component, the NRC group cited the importance of assisting the people on the front lines: emergency responders. During the Aurora movie theater shooting incident, the NRC leaders emphasized that many responders were traumatized for life. Post-traumatic stress is a growing problem in today’s military battles and in disaster responses, explained NRC representatives.

The group members, who have strong ties with the military and previous White House administrations, said they could assist Teller and El Paso County officials in finalizing emergency plans for the region for large-scale disasters. They also championed the idea of opening a National Resiliency Center in Teller County. “It helps to have a physical place for people to go to,” said Dr. John Gay, the co-founder of the NRC group, in citing the importance of having a national resiliency center facility. For example, the group succeeded in developing a 9,000-square-foot center in Aurora that served as a hub for disaster victims and their families and the emergency responders.

Teller County Commissioner Marc Dettenrieder asked about the funding for such a center, and the exact role of the government in facilitating such an effort. Gay told the commissioners that the resiliency center in Aurora, which cost about $365,000, was funded by private donations, with the Aurora government assisting in securing an actual location for the resiliency center.

During the hospital tour, many NRC representatives were impressed with the modern, state-of-the-art facilities of PPRH, but some concerns were voiced about how long the hospital could withstand a long-term disaster.

PPRH Marketing Director Eric Riggle described the reaction to the hospital facility as quite positive. “Everyone was quite impressed with what we have as a critical access hospital that serves people in Teller County and the area. It was a very insightful meeting.”

The next step Riggle cited is working with the El Paso Count government in better determining the role of the hospital, if a regional disaster occurs.