After a range of emergencies in 2018 — ransomware to bomb threats and wildfires to a propane shortage — the Colorado director of the office of emergency management has identified how to improve systems and reduce risks across the state.
The director, Michael Willis, said he learned a lot in his first full year in the position.
“Incidents in Colorado allow us to study ourselves and we have had the chance to observe important lessons as other states faced catastrophic disasters,” he said.
Colorado communities face a wide variety of natural, technological and human-caused threats, he said, and the complexities of the environment — whether geological or governmental — can present significant challenges.
Willis said he intends to focus on three overarching areas in 2019: alert and warning, mitigation and exercises.
Alert and warning
Fast-moving wildfires was a major issues in Colorado and other western states in 2018. Fuels in Colorado are dangerously high this year too, Willis said. Almost three million people — about half of the state’s population — live in a wildland-urban interface. Many of those communities have limited road networks that can make evacuations challenging and restrict access for responders.
“The stage is set for catastrophe in 2019, yet less than 20 percent of our community members have registered for their local community alert and notification system and fewer than half of Colorado counties are approved to use the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System,” Willis said.
Most counties in the state haven’t tested their alert systems enough and don’t have plans to do so.
“We have to do better,” he said.
Many of the disasters in Colorado are predictable, Willis said.
“If we can predict them, we can take steps to reduce the impacts these disasters have on our communities,” he said.
And the best way to do that is mitigation.
“The return on investment for mitigation projects range from 3:1 to 6:1 over recovery costs and help communities bounce back sooner after disasters,” he said. “This year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will significantly increase federal funding available for mitigation projects.”
To take advantage of that, the office needs to do two things: submit highly competitive projects to FEMA and find ways to meet the 25 percent funding match that the projects require.
“This won’t be easy, but resilient Colorado communities will be worth it,” Willis said.
Regular exercises help emergency personnel test their limits and the stability of their plans, he said. It also reveals areas that can be improved.
Willis recommends conducting multifunctional exercises that force different agencies to work together toward a common goal.
“Our exercises must make us uncomfortable and stretch us beyond our current limits,” he said. “They should find our point of failure – and push us just a little further. Remember, failures in exercises lead to successes in disasters. It’s how we get better.”