Disaster Planning in Rural America: A Local Emergency Manager with Colorado's Office of Emergency Management Shares the Unique Challenges of Planning for and Responding to Disasters in Cheyenne and Kit Carson Counties
Janssen, Darcy, The Public Manager
Colorado emergency management incidents encompass a multiplicity of situations. Colorado local emergency managers operate under the authority of the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), Division of Emergency Management. Supporting federal authority refers to the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act; Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act; Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act; and associated regulations and policy statements. Supporting authorities also reside at the state level and ordinances and resolutions at the local level.
Emergency management evolved from the cold war days of civil defense, bomb shelters, space food, evacuation, and sheltering drills. In the mid-1970s, the federal government brought together several agencies to form the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As the Nation emerged from the cold war era, attention shifted to natural disasters, such as tornados, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, winter storms, and drought. This process trickled down to the state and then local levels, including counties, parishes, and municipalities.
As production agriculture changed and oil and gas development evolved, the large amounts of hazardous materials (hazmat) used in rural areas required a method for planning for and reporting on these matters. In response, local emergency managers developed local emergency planning commissions, which acted as governing bodies to handle these issues. The 1980s led us into mandatory reporting for possession of controlled chemicals--often used in production agriculture and oil and gas development and production--in excess of allowable amounts. New planning, training, and educational programs were established for these new requirements.
The close of the twentieth century brought the word "terrorism" into our vocabulary in connection with Oklahoma City, the Unabomber, and bombs planted in the World Trade Center. New planning requirements were already in place, and grant dollars became available to assist in training and equipping emergency responders. Domestic terrorism by this time was a serious planning and preparedness effort, but we had not yet experienced a large-scale international terrorism event (outside of Pearl Harbor) on American soil. In 2001, of course, planes crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing thousands and forever changing the safe, free society in which we lived.
Responding to an event of any form in the rural regions usually involves "all" volunteer agencies. One of the problems in rural areas is funding these agencies to provide a safe, educated response.
Cheyenne County has 1,782 square miles and a population of 2,231, an average of 3.4 people per square mile. Kit Carson County has 2,162 square miles and a population of 7,360, again about 3.4 people per square mile. Both counties' main forms of industry are agriculture and oil and gas development. Kit Carson County is the fourth largest confined animal feeding county in Colorado; Cheyenne County has a large helium production plant, a byproduct of which is hazardous gas. Both counties have a large maze of pipelines running underneath containing gases and byproducts transported to refineries.
Planning for a disaster event involves the hazards inherent to our infrastructure. A tornado is the most likely natural destructive force, and agroterrorism is the most likely terrorist event for which we plan. We have many acres of growing crops and large concentrations of confined animal populations, so crop or animal disease outbreaks remain a very real threat to our food supply.
The population and land mass make it difficult to show a positive cost-benefit analysis when asking for funding for many of our emergency response efforts. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding has given us the opportunity to participate at the regional and state levels to gain funding for emergency response equipment, decontamination, detection, communications, and surge medical supplies for our jurisdictions. …