Emergency response in Douglas County got a boost when the Partnership of Douglas County Governments signed an intergovernmental agreement to improve the county’s disaster response.
The partnership gathered at the county commissioners’ room Sept. 21 to sign a disaster-emergency mutual aid agreement unique to Colorado. The agreement defines how county and municipal agencies fund, manage and respond to disasters and is an example of problem solving among agencies at local levels, said Dave Hard, director of the Colorado division of emergency management.
“This is good government,” Hard said. “It’s multi-levels of government within the county working together to take care of their citizens locally. We’d like to see it used as a model for other jurisdictions.”
Leaders from Larkspur to the library and every municipality in Douglas County signed on to assure a cohesive response to emergencies, which begins with financial support from the county, said Douglas County Commissioner Steve Boand.
The agreement began to take shape years ago when Boand found himself fielding questions from neighboring agencies asking how the county can provide more support in the face of a disaster, natural or manmade. State law charges the county with primary responsibility for disaster response, Boand said, but at the same time county leaders have to respect that cities have full jurisdiction within their boundaries.
The next step was to set aside money dedicated to emergency response and find a way to erase the boundaries between jurisdictions in the face of a disaster. In 2009, the county dedicated $2 million to disaster response in a general fund line item that can be tapped into as long as the filing agency meets certain criteria.
“I learned all of us have to work together or none of us will be successful,” Boand said.
Working with the mutual aid model widely used among agencies to define joint roles in police and fire response, the Partnership of Douglas County Governments adapted it to fit a countywide effort. Agencies that signed on to the agreement include the county government and sheriff’s office, the Highlands Ranch Metropolitan District, library and school districts, and the cities of Larkspur, Castle Rock, Castle Pines, Lone Tree and Parker.
The agreement establishes mutual aid and resource assistance among the participating agencies during a declared emergency or disaster. In such event, any of the participating agencies can request assistance from another participating agency for personnel, equipment or other aid, as a voluntary response. Any of the participating agencies can seek cost recovery from state or federal sources as long as they meet the standards set by state and federal laws.
The agreement asks for the continued participation from all agencies in the county’s emergency planning committee and aims to ensure a coordinated effort in preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. It also requires participation in emergency exercises, an ongoing effort among county agencies.
Prior-year exercises include mock responses to wildfires in the Perry Park area and a chemical disaster at a water treatment plant in Roxborough. The agreement was signed two days before a planned terrorism response exercise at the Park Meadows Mall — Operation Mountain Guardian — which involves 2,000 participants and more than 81 agencies from the metro area. Participants include 1,200 emergency responder players, up to 400 volunteers simulating victims or witnesses and up to 500 people helping to run the exercises, according to the Colorado division of emergency management.
The exercises are an invaluable part of developing the county’s response to emergencies, said Fran Santagata, Douglas County emergency management.
“Every time we run an exercise we figure out what’s working well and what needs to be improved,” Santagata said. “What you end up seeing is a much better response.”
Santagata was part of the team that contributed to the overall plan, an effort that included representatives from the sheriff’s office, police departments, fire agencies and first responders from across the county.
Participants agree it is not a matter of if the county will face an emergency disaster, but when. The bottom-line goal of the agreement is for the protection of county residents, said Art Morales, chief of the Castle Rock Fire Department.
“We know we need each other to successfully mitigate a disaster — no municipality can do it alone,” Morales said. “This (plan) is not only an acknowledgement of that but a commitment to do everything we can for a successful outcome.”