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Are You Ready?

Preparing for sudden events is key to both survival and recovery

Predicting hazards and their outcomes is the heart of risk management. But even someone with a very sophisticated risk management plan can find themselves with very little notice to prepare for sudden emergencies such as disasters. Coloradans have had their fair share of unexpected events: in 2006, southern Colorado experienced blizzard conditions for the entire winter; in 2008, a tornado touched down on the Town of Windsor, and a strain of salmonella broke out in the municipal water supply of Alamosa; in 2012, the Lower North Fork wildfire ravaged the state; and the flood disaster of 2013 claimed both lives and homes1; most recently, the May 2017 hailstorm that hammered the metro Denver area and was considered the costliest hailstorm to date at $1.4 billion in damages from 200,000 auto and homeowner claims.2

When sudden events strike, entire communities may be at risk. As a public entity, your district is uniquely positioned in its community as a cornerstone of service and leadership, whether it’s providing clean water and safe recreational spaces, or fighting fires and controlling mosquito populations. It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to have a sudden event preparedness program.

Firstly, what does a preparedness program entail? Colorado’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management defines it as a program that “provides all-hazards preparedness information and resources to those living, working and visiting Colorado.”3 From public service announcements and emergency response guides, to internal emergency training and creating an emergency communication plan, your preparedness program functions as a kind of blueprint for your staff and community. Ideally, your program is reviewed annually and updated to include any new information. For your consideration, we have compiled a number of recommendations and resources for your sudden event preparedness program.

Wildfire

Colorado is no stranger to wildfires, and the state requires counties to have a mitigation planning document called the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). The Colorado State Forest Service has compiled a list of CWPPs by county that includes entries from various fire protection districts in the area4. We recommend reviewing CWPPs from your county as you put together your district’s sudden event preparedness program.

An additional resource for your consideration is the National Fire Danger Rating System. Utilized by the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service, this rating system collates all of the data submitted by local station managers and renders that data into a fire danger forecast map. This system is updated daily and can be viewed at wfas.net.

Tornado

While most tornados in Colorado are on the lower end of the Enhanced Fujita scale, that doesn’t mean that lower wind speeds are incapable of inflicting serious damage. One of the most critical steps in planning for a tornado is identifying shelter locations. OSHA states that underground shelters like cellars and basements are ideal for these weather events, but if these locations are unavailable, consider the following:5

  • Windowless rooms constructed out of reinforced concrete or brick offer excellent protection
  • Seek out small interior rooms or hallways on the lowest floor possible
  • Avoid doors, windows, and outside walls
  • Try to position yourself in the center of any room, and avoid corners as they attract debris
  • Avoid auditoriums, cafeterias, and gyms that have flat, wide-span roofing

We also recommend looking into the NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards, a nationwide network of radio stations that continuously broadcasts important weather information.6 Additionally, the CDC put together tornado preparation guidelines that districts should review.7

Flash Floods

Flash flooding is particularly dangerous as it can occur within a few minutes of intense rainfall, often catching people by surprise. According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, densely populated areas are especially susceptible to flash flooding, “The construction of buildings, highways, driveways, and parking lots increases runoff by reducing the amount of rain absorbed by the ground […] during heavy rain, storm drains can become overwhelmed and flood roads and buildings. Low spots, such as underpasses, underground parking garages, and basements can become death traps.”8

The American Red Cross is another great resource for what to do before, during, and after a flood. They’ve also made available a free emergency app for Apple and Android devices that provides real-time weather and hazard alerts and maps with open Red Cross shelters.9

Additional Consideration: Critical Incident Stress

During a sudden event, your emergency staff members will undoubtedly find themselves in high-stress situations that demand the limits of their physical, mental, and emotional capabilities. These employees who have been entrusted with critical roles during an emergency may be subject to critical incident stress, defined by OSHA as, “workers responding to emergency events and or disasters [who] will see and experience events that will strain their ability to function.”

OSHA explains this particular effect by distinguishing it from post-traumatic stress disorder, which “differs from critical incident stress by lasting longer than four weeks after the event triggering the emotional, mental or physical response. Most instances of critical incident stress last between two days and four weeks.”10

There is a large body of literature available about critical incident stress management, including pre-incident preparedness. One noteworthy approach worth investigating is the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD), a form of “psychological first aid” that has proven particularly effective. We recommend reading this published study by Dr. Jeffrey T. Mitchell and considering it for your employees post-event.11

We understand how it may seem completely unrealistic if not impossible to create a sudden event preparedness program that takes into account everything that could go wrong: from natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, and snowstorms, to man-made events such as nuclear power plant failures, cyber attacks, and active shooters. After all, some events, particularly weather phenomenon, are typified by region. For example, does your Colorado district really run the risk of extensive damage from a hurricane?

However, we ask you to consider this from the context of education and promoting awareness. Using the example of hurricanes, most if not all Coloradans can confidently say that they will never be exposed to that phenomenon in their home state. However, what if one of your district employees is attending a conference in Florida? What about people from your local community visiting family out of state? Ultimately, the information your district provides to its staff and community has the potential to save lives.

Sources:

  1. https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/dhsem/atom/75516
  2. http://www.denverpost.com/2017/05/23/hailstorm-costliest-ever-metro-denver/
  3. https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/dhsem/preparedness-1
  4. http://csfs.colostate.edu/wildfire-mitigation/colorado-community-wildfire-protection-plans/
  5. https://www.osha.gov/dts/weather/tornado/preparedness.html
  6. http://www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr/index.php
  7. https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/tornadoes/prepared.html
  8. http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/education/svrwx101/floods/
  9. http://www.redcross.org/news/article/Download-Emergency-App-to-Help-During-Weather-Emergencie
  10. https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/emergencypreparedness/guides/critical.html
  11. http://www.info-trauma.org/flash/media-/mitchellCriticalIncidentStressDebriefing.pdf
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