EL PASO COUNTY — In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy homeland security became a top priority. “It's an all hazards issue,” said Pikes Peak Regional Office of Emergency Management, Director, Jim Reid. “It’s not necessarily just terrorism.” Whether manmade or natural disaster, there is now 20 years of investment in emergency management across the country.
Firefighters across the county saw the dangerous reality of their career when 343 firefighters lost their lives while trying to help others on 9/11. Men and women working in public safety know the risk of the job. Acknowledging risk, however, is not accepting the unavoidable. The circumstances of the World Trade towers collapsing was a first. "What you think is a building that is not going to fall down, did,” said Captain Mike Smaldino with Colorado Springs Fire Department, “So for us on our side, is pay attention to that building construction.”
The concept of emergency management in communities across the county has expanded significantly since the attacks. "On many occasions, was just a part time job and assigned,” said Reid, “Today that's a full blown career. We have universities that are offering various degrees in emergency management.”
A big push for emergency management following 9/11 was standardizing systems and protocols across the country. Under the watch of President George W. Bush, the Department of Homeland Security was formed to lead efforts.
Emergency managers were directed to adopt the Incident Command System (ICS). "ICS existed, but Bush is the one who kind of said, ‘you will,’ no longer you may—you will,” said Reid.
ICS designated things like who takes the lead when agencies from different jurisdictions join together on larger incidents. It also designates standardized communication. The same type of language and it's clear language,” said Reid, “Ten codes, 10-4, 10-2, 10-21, all that's out the window.” Now, when you want to know someone’s location, you ask their “location.”
Communication systems have been upgraded and standardized. Radio channel assignments expanded to include frequencies for regional and statewide communication. There are technology upgrades to assist first responders. The FirstNet system for example gives priority to first responder cell phones during emergencies. "You'll get a message saying basically your signal is the priority,” said Smaldino.
A major element of the investment is creating a network of personnel and equipment that can be shared between city, county, state, and federal agencies. It is a force multiplier for large emergencies.
Reid points to grant funded hazardous material vehicles in El Paso County. There are nearly identical units in other nearby cities and counties, as well as military bases. "We could mass decon [decontaminate] thousands of people easily,” said Reid. With identical equipment, emergency responders can join forces seamlessly.
There are many news making events where the investment has been utilized since 9/11 like the armored vehicle used at the Planned Parenthood shooting and stand-off in Colorado Springs; ICS protocols in action during the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest wildfires; and snow removal equipment shared between Colorado counties during blizzards.