More than forty people gathered at the Creede Elks Lodge on May 17th, 2017 for a Tabletop Exercise to practice Emergency Response and Communications in the three county Region of Hinsdale, Mineral, and Rio Grande. Brought together by the Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team (RWEACT) and funded by a 2013 Governor’s Order received during the West Fork Complex fire, this event improves collaboration and communication.   The USDA Forest Service Rio Grande National Forest crafted the scenario for this Tabletop Exercise. Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas welcomed the group and referred to the successful 2013 three-county response to the West Fork Complex fire and a 2014 similar Tabletop Exercise. “These types of exercises help us identify where we can improve.”

Emergency Response and Communications Tabletop Exercise

A multitude of state and federal resources are available for assistance in such emergency events and many of these participated in the Tabletop Exercise including the three counties and departments of Emergency Management Services, Sheriff’s Offices, Boards of County Commissioners and Health Departments & Social Services, the USDA Forest Service, the Division of Water Resources, municipalities, Water Conservation Districts, the National Weather Service, fire departments, reservoir managers, local nonprofit partners, Emergency Preparedness and Response program, the Alamosa Regional Communications Center, Colorado Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, and the San Luis Valley Region of the Colorado Division of Fire & Prevention Control.

The practice event discusses a specific emergency situation (in this case, a mock landslide at Riverhill) and what actions would be taken by our regional Counties, testing our emergency plan in an informal and low-stress environment. The three Counties have adopted an Upper Rio Grande Early Warning and Notification Plan to maximize communication efforts beyond geographical boundaries. This plan is revised annually and this Tabletop Exercise demonstrated improvements that can be made to the 2016 version since “preparedness is not by coincidence.” The plan includes steps to be taken when emergencies arise and a matrix that all three counties agree to for various stages / levels of an emergency. The plan addresses a consistent, coordinated approach to events and is further supplemented by additional planning efforts in each county (such as mass-sheltering agreements).

As the time-lapsed scenario unfolded for the group, discussions centered on evacuation plans, traffic control, information for the public and media outlets, impacts of response on local economies, modeling and existing inundation maps, and water supply and wastewater impacts of the mock debris flow and subsequent breach.   Hinsdale County Emergency Manager Jerry Gray reminded the group to look towards Recovery efforts as Response was handled.

Paul Duarte of the Colorado Division of Fire & Prevention Control provided guidance on assistance that can be provided by the Governor’s Office and the State of Colorado indicating that we are “here to help communities respond in a safe and effective way.”   Mineral County Commissioner Scott Lamb closed the meeting with “thank you to the Forest Service for together this practice situation for us all.”