Columbine. Oklahoma City. Katrina. 9/11. The 1989 San Francisco earthquake. The California Camp Fire.
Over the past two decades, these disasters and calamities have pushed municipalities across the country to ponder their ability to respond to emergencies big and small.
Emergency preparedness is one of those essential government services that nobody appreciates until disaster strikes. Grand Junction residents may be relieved to know that the city has put a lot of resources, time and training into its emergency operations plan.
The city’s police and fire departments have always been able to stand up “incident commands” to deal with wildfires or something like a hostage situation. But the city has scaled up that process to respond to an ice storm, a natural gas explosion, floods or any natural or man-made emergency. It does “tabletop” exercises to test its response to hypothetical situations as part of ongoing training. What if an EMP attack knocked out all communication in the city? What if the water supply became tainted with a pathogen? What if a flu epidemic kept 70% of city staff at home?
The city has a process and a structure to deal with any emergency. But one of the findings of a statistically valid survey conducted last year indicated many residents may not understand the breadth of the city’s emergency planning or their own role in improving the general level of preparedness.
For example, the city has the capability of putting out a “reverse 911” call to alert people about an emerging situation. But that system only works on landlines. It does, however, allow people to register their cellphone numbers to receive texts. So, one of the easiest things we can all do to bolster the preparedness (in either the city or the county) is to go the Grand Junction Regional Communications Center’s website and enroll in emergency notifications.
In 2015, the city decided it needed to do more emergency and response training beyond what police and fire had traditionally done. It hired its first emergency manager, housed in the fire department, who put the first emergency operations plan together. The plan provides the framework for how the response to emergencies is coordinated and how information is disseminated to the public.
It’s a more complicated process than we can outline here, involving an assessment of which departments should be involved, an inventory of resources and how to deploy them and whether additional resources are needed from outside the city.
In the case of disaster that would involve FEMA, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the city, and whatever local government entities might be helping out under mutual aid agreements, would still have to manage the emergency for 72 hours before the feds could be expected to take over.
Similarly, private citizens all have a responsibility to be as prepared as possible to weather a disaster or emergency for 72 hours before the cavalry — whether it’s local, state or federal — arrives.
“We take this stuff very seriously,” City Manager Greg Caton told the Sentinel’s editorial board on Monday. “We do the planning and update training and best practices, but we all have a role in this.”
Safety councils and federal and state agencies urge everyone to have survival kits that will get them through 72 hours. At a minimum, that’s three days worth of food and water, a weather radio, a non-electric can opener to open canned goods, flashlights, warm clothing and batteries.
Wildfires and floods are statistically the most likely disaster we’re apt to face here in the Grand Valley. But since we can never know what’s coming, it’s reassuring to know the city is ready for whatever strikes.