By Beth Dodd:
When disaster strikes, it pays to be prepared. Preparedness was the goal of a gathering of professional and volunteer emergency response agencies from a five county area this past week.
The South Central Region Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters Workshop (a.k.a. SCR VOAD) was held in Woodland Park on March 6. It was an opportunity for professional emergency response organizations to meet with volunteer groups to plan ahead for disaster response. The gathering gave reps from groups like sheriff’s offices, fire departments, and county offices of emergency management the chance to talk face-to-face with folks from the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, United Way, Goodwill, CUSP, and local churches.
At least 17 government agencies and 22 volunteer organizations from El Paso, Teller, Park, Lake and Chaffee Counties joined in the exercise. The intent of the meeting was to build relationships, identify resources, and gain a better understanding of how to work together before a crisis occurs. Both short-term and long-term needs of disaster victims were considered.
All together around 75 people participated in the event. Teller County Office of Emergency Management Director, Steven Steed, as well as the OEM Directors of El Paso, Lake, and Chaffee Counties all participated in the workshop. Teller County Commissioners Norm Steen and Marc Dettenrieder, and assessor Betty Clark-Wine, as well as Woodland Park Police Chief Bob Larsen and City Manager David Buttery were there as well.
The meeting was structured around two disaster scenarios. Participants split up into break-out groups to discuss how they would respond to a fictional incident with a rapidly growing wildfire and an initial 400 evacuees trying to get out of its path. The conversations covered a wide array of topics from logistics, transportation, and communication to identifying and meeting the needs of evacuees such as shelter and food. Mental health care services for both disaster victims and first responders are also seen as a real need.
During and after a natural disaster such as a fire, flood, or tornado, first responders like firefighters, police and sheriff’s officers, and the county offices of emergency management and public health respond to the immediate threat, getting people out of harms way and mitigating the damage. Volunteer organizations including non-profits, local businesses, community organizations, and faith-based organizations step-up to help with housing, food, mental health services, food and shelter for pets and livestock, and recovery services.
Meetings such as the one on March 6 help these groups work together. Not only do the individuals get to meet each other to build relationships and network, they can also identify community resources and understand the responsibilities, capability, and capacity of area agencies. It’s an important opportunity to identify and address gaps and overlaps in services before a critical situation occurs. The ultimate goal is a seamless response to disaster by pre-planning for prevention, response, mitigation, and recovery.
Teller County Sheriff’s Deputy Renee Bunting, who helped organize the event, said, “I was very thankful so many people from our local governments and volunteer organizations came together to do this. All of them were very positive about it, saying they want to have more meetings like this. That’s huge. Everyone here wants to help.”
Of course, you are the primary person in charge of your safety in a disaster. To benefit from the efforts of the SCR VOAD, you should also plan ahead. Do you know the threats in your area? Are you registered for Nixle and Reverse 911 to get emergency information for your neighborhood? Do you have an evacuation plan and a plan to reunite your family if you are all separated at work, school, and childcare? What about your animals?
You can learn more about planning for disaster by visiting the home page of the Office of Emergency Management on the Teller County website at http://www.co.teller.co.us/OEM. In fact Teller County is now printing an updated version of its emergency preparation guide for local residents. Be sure to pick up a copy and use it to plan ahead before a disaster affects you and your family.
If you would like to take things a step further, volunteer to help others in need before or after a disaster. Contact Renee Bunting at the Teller County Sheriff’s Office to learn how you can get involved at 719- 687-9652.