Monthly Archives: February 2011

O.M.E.G.A. … Responders?

A common question we are challenged with is “Is it O.M.E.G.A. or O.M.E.G.A. Responders?”

What are we, really?  Our function is Organizational Management for Emergency General Activity.  O.M.E.G.A.  But we did find ourselves in a situation where we were not the first ones to claim this name.  OMEGA, it turns out, is pretty popular, so when we tried to get a web domain, we discovered that omega.com, omega.biz and omega.info had already been claimed by Omega Engineering and omega.net was a poorly maintained blog belonging to an adventurer and omega.org was a holistic institute.  And omega.us is an alias for omegawatches.com.  We didn’t really want to get omega.xxx, although it turned out this is particular domain was still available.

Our group was active as far back as 2004 and 2005, but it wasn’t until 2006, when the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office OEM gave us an opportunity to help with training functions that we came together as a team.  At the time we were referred to as “Team 1”, being the first team formed by the county, but as time went on, restructuring and reorganization forced team alignments with district boundaries and Team 1 faded away.

In 2007, when we decided to incorporate as a non-profit, we started looking for a name.  We wanted something that would make for a catchy acronym like RESPOND or ON CALL or READY.  Okay, we came up with REACT — Regional Emergency Action Community Team.  We almost went that route, but other things undermined this goal.

At the time a lot of us belonged to a group that hiked Fourteeners in the summer of 2005.  The logo on the shirt was the letter Ω with a mountain peak inside it.  Because we all had this shirt and wore it to exercises, we used to stand out in a crowd and that lead to a lot of our served agencies to refer to us as “Team Omega” or the “Omega Group”.  We created our own trap.  An acronym was built around the name and that was how we registered the non-profit.

Which brings us back to what to use for a website domain.  With all reasonable “omega” options taken, we needed something that had not been claimed.  We went with OMEGAresponders because we responded to our served agency calls and thus a new era of confusion was born.  Who are we?  We are O.M.E.G.A., but a lot of people forget to call us that.

Denver CERT Graduation Exercise

On December 11, 2010, O.M.E.G.A. hosted the last Denver CERT graduation exercise for 2010.  I consider these graduation exercises as the most essential part of the CERT training.  It completes the 32 hour Basic CERT course and it allows the students to demonstrate what they have learned in class.

It is a time for the student to either put up or shut up.  It is time for them to walk the walk of a CERT volunteer.  For me, it is their crowning achievement, something as an instructor, I cherish to see the students transformed into a full fledged CERT volunteer.

In this exercise, I had Max Khaytsus, Jenn Scott, John Grahn and Carolyn Bluhm to help facilitate the exercise.  John worked his artistic magic in creating the role players (aka victims) into ghoulish disaster survivors.  Max and Jenn seemed to rub their hands with ornery anticipation of what they were ready to pull on the unsuspecting students.  Carolyn was just happy that the Denver community was on the way to be better prepared for any emergency.

In 2010, the City and County of Denver has been using the strategy of combining all the classes in a given quarter of the year into a quarterly graduation exercise.  For example, classes held in January, February and March had a graduation exercise in March; classes held in April, May and June had a graduation exercise in June; classes held in July, August and September, had a graduation exercise in September, and classes held in October, November and December had a graduation exercise in December.

This also allows a larger gathering of students to participate in the graduation exercise.  If the students want to get their CERT bag (and all the cool toys) and their certificate, they must attend a graduation exercise.  If the student misses their assigned graduation exercise, they can attend another one at a later date.

This last exercise of 2010 had an interesting mix of students.  We had the Boy Scouts (working on their Merit badge), Denver Police Academy Cadets, working professionals from various clerical, IT and management roles, and a retired Russian Submarine chaser and analyst.

As I had done in the past, while our moulage expert applied special effects creations to the role players, I went over some of the highlights of search and rescue – triage, treatment, incident command system and any other questions – with the CERT students.  With Max, Jenn and Carolyn (the evaluation team) working with me that morning, we certainly were able to be more thorough with the overviews.

We have been holding our exercises at the Community of Christ building at 480 Marion Street in Denver.  This building has been designated as the spookiest facility we have used to date.  It is pre-World War II architecture, with all sorts of nooks and crannies to hide the role players.  It has a number of twists and turns that made the CERT members think on how they would evacuate the role players they were sent in to rescue and apply the protocols of medical triage.

Or in other words, the Denver building is a perfect place to hold an exercise.

Because of the chilly December temperatures, the evaluation team allowed the CERT members to hold their medical triage area in the basement of the church (with limited access).  The combined classes worked so well together, that the evaluation team gave them a follow-up exercise, since we had plenty of time left over.  They had the added complication of a “natural gas leak inside the building”.  The CERT members had to make sure the “natural gas leak” was evaluated, gas turned off (simulated), and the building vented with fresh air before the teams were allowed to set up another medical triage inside the building.

It was interesting how the teams worked through various stages of miscommunications before they pulled together as a team.  It was a clear demonstration of how volunteers, using the Incident Command System (ICS) correctly, adapt and over come obstacles.

They made good use of ICS, the protocols that law enforcement, fire districts, public health and public works rely on, even though it may seem like a foreign language.

We are looking forward to more adventures like this in 2011.

Denver Parade of Lights

Although there are some people that work year round on the Parade of Lights, some times are much slower then other times.  The main work can only be done on the day of the parade.  The more then 500 volunteers have various jobs that need to be done to have the parade run as smoothly as it does.  As the costumes are set up in the costume room and the stars dry on Bannock, a few drivers and one float captain, myself, gathered at the warehouse where the floats are stored the other 363 days a year.  As I arrived, the creative team finished up with the decoration on the last float, a driver was pulling the floats out of the warehouse and getting them ready for the two and a quarter mile trip to the staging area for the parade.  Everything was lined up and the Denver Police Department had arrived to help clear the way for a Gingerbread House, a Ship, a Mountain Range, handful of Toys and other floats for the parade.  At a top speed just barely touching double digits, the mini-parade made its way down busy city streets during the Friday night rush hour.

After making the journey, it was time to line up the floats and for me to head over to the costume room.  Only a few blocks away from the staging area, the final costumes were getting unloaded from their boxes.  Slowly our many volunteers arrived ready to start bringing the many parade characters to life.  Upon checking in, they received their assignment and began dressing.  The everyday warehouse transformed into a magical place with candies, trees, presents and even a gingerbread man coming to life.  As the time got closer to the parade step off, the final make up was being applied and dusted with glitter.

Parade of Lights - Gingerbread House

The City and County Building with the Gingerbread House float.

As a captain, I gathered up my dancing candies and gave them one final look over and then began a safety briefing.  Then it was time to meet up with the float once again.  Upon arrival we met all the other volunteers that are assigned to our float, the driver, spotter and communicators.  I give the candies one last talk about where to stand and other last minute safety tips and then finally a pep talk.

The first thing on the parade route is TV land.  As all the units merged together, the Gingerbread float finally got the go ahead and stepped off.  All the lights and the filled grandstands just added to the excitement, along with the cameras all around.  The announcers could just be heard over the float music.  The parade moved down the canyons of the city without any problems except a battery pack replacement on a character or two.

At the end of the parade, the float went one way and the characters and I headed back to the costume room.  The costumes found their way back to the boxes and people that filled them grabbed their cookies and soda and headed home for another year.  Before the last unit came back in, the costume room was almost back to the warehouse that it was before the weekend.  It was time for me to meet up with the float for one last time and help the house find its way home.  The police escorted us back to the float warehouse.  Getting back to check out, I picked up the car and closed out another year.  The final things were being packed up and only the stars on Bannock were left as evidence of the parade.

Denver Parade of Lights

The Denver Parade of Lights is an annual event that members of O.M.E.G.A. have been participating in before O.M.E.G.A. was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.  Since O.M.E.G.A.’s inception, this event has stayed on our list of activities.  The parade starts off with Major Waddles, a human size penguin, leading the balloon penguin who is the real mascot of the parade.  The parade’s mascot is followed by a local marching band which is then succeeded by the rest of the line up.  The parade ends with a Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer balloon which is followed by a float with Santa in his sleigh.

All entries in the parade are required to have (working) lights in some way.  Some entries use individual battery packs to illuminate a set of lights on the person.  Some use a central generator that powers the lights for multiple entries.  And others, like the balloons, have a small tractor with a spot light.

The Parade of Lights is a two night event.  Friday night, which is televised, has a slightly longer time frame.  This is due to the pauses for commercial breaks and having a few more participants.  Saturday night’s parade is a bit short, but also starts earlier in the evening.

Throughout the route, the city places police officers to assist with crowd control and security.  Amateur radio operators, also known as hams, are placed through out the route as well.  The hams assist with communications, missing persons, whether they are children separated from their parents or parents who have gotten themselves lost and other event issues.  Many times, an officer and a ham share the same location.  This partnership can be beneficial to both sides.  Though the police officers have their communications, they are not always apprised of situations and vice versa for the hams.  Many times, it is the ham notifying the officer that the parade has officially started or that we are in commercial break.

Occasionally, there is a motorist who insists that he needs to exit a parking garage and wants on the parade route (after the parade has started).  The hams in the area will do their best to dissuade the motorist.  If this cannot be done, then the ham will request a law enforcement officer to intervene.  The motorist will then see the error of their ways and hold off until the parade is over.  Once in a while, emergency vehicles will need to come down the parade route.  At this time, the officers and hams will make sure the parade is halted, unblock the road ways, and make sure the emergency vehicles can pass through safely.

The 2010 Parade of Lights was fairly quiet.  The officer on my corner was nice and willing to accept the ham operators as partners during the event.  Friday night proved to be the more eventful of the two evenings.  When a few spectators came toward our location and chatted briefly with the officer, he headed mid-block.  When I checked with them, they informed me that there was what appeared to be a gang fight going on in the alley.  Since there was chatter on the radio, I followed the officer to make sure things didn’t get out of hand.  When I caught up to the officer in the alley, he had been joined by two other officers from the next corner.  The individuals who were supposedly involved in the gang fight, had dispersed.  We all headed back to our respective locations.  The officer from my corner and I kept a more vigilant eye on the crowd in case any more incidents cropped up.  During set up and blocking off the road on Saturday night, the officer and I discussed the game plan should another gang fight, or other such incident, pop up.  Both of us decided that at least one should stay at the corner to make sure it was not a distraction in order to cause other trouble.  So, he being the law enforcement officer and having more clout in breaking up a fight or other incident, would be the one to check out the fight, with assistance from other officers, and I would stay at the corner keeping a very close eye on the crowd.  He assured me that he would have back up and not be by himself.  Luckily, Saturday night was a quiet night.

At the end of the parade, after Santa had passed by, the spectators began to disperse.  Many would walk to another location to see the parade again, some head to other parts of 16th Street Mall and the rest get into their vehicles to leave.  Though not all hams do, I assist the officer at my corner with traffic and pedestrian crossing.  This makes for a slightly longer evening, but provides the opportunity to let the officer know that hams can be more than just communications.  It also means that I don’t have to wait in a crowded lobby for our table to be made ready.  Another tradition that O.M.E.G.A. has kept is to go to the Hard Rock Café for dinner, dessert, and camaraderie after the parade.  This includes the ham operators, parade participants and spectators.

For those who have never seen the Parade of Lights, I would strongly recommend seeing it at least once.  The parade is the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, opening the holiday shopping season in downtown Denver.  We look forward to seeing you December 3 and 4, 2011.

Shared Strategies for Homeland Security

The middle of December 2010 saw a new event come to Denver, the Denver UASI Shared Strategies for Homeland Security Conference.  UASI is the Urban Area Security Initiative program, a post-9/11 homeland security initiative that helps major metropolitan areas develop regional collaboration, communications and support programs for prevention, protection, response and recovery in the event of an incident.  An “incident”, by UASI terms, would generally be an act of terrorism, but the scope of the planning could easily be expanded to cover any type of a man-made or natural disaster.

Bill Ritter at SSHS

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter welcoming the participants of the Shared Strategies for Homeland Security conference at the Denver Art Museum. The Governor spoke to a full house.

The conference had multiple tracks, including Medical and Health, First Response, Business and Critical Infrastructure and Community Resilience.  The planning for this conference began two years ago and O.M.E.G.A. was involved for a phase of the project a year before the event, after being invited to help develop concepts for the Community Resilience track.

Several of our members attended the event, which occupied the entire Concourse level conference center of the Denver Downtown Sheraton Hotel.  Titled “Shared Strategies for Homeland Security”, the four day conference focused on infrastructure disrupting events and brought in security and emergency management experts from across the United States, as well as from Israel.

Israel is an interesting case study in terrorism and emergency response.  Surrounded by hostile countries and constantly struggling against Palestinian residents over the same piece of land, Israel is constantly exposed to an array of dangers.  Acts of terrorism on Israeli soil are very frequent.  They currently see an average of more than a half dozen acts of terrorism per day, well over two thousand incidents per year.  The majority of these are “simple” events, but they also see about two dozen suicide bombers over the course of an average year.  About one hundred people per year die from suicide bombers, which also translates to half of all terrorism related fatalities.  This is a huge number.  Israel has a population of 7.5 million people.  Converted into American scales, this would be the equivalent of almost one thousand annual suicide bombers killing four thousand people every year.

People living in this environment have little option but to accept terrorism as a regular occurrence and work on a daily basis towards minimizing their personal risk without giving up their ability to live.  Constant vigilance and a strong emergency response system is the norm in Israel.  Statistics over the last decade show that medical help arrives on the scene in 72 seconds.  An ambulance will be on the scene in about 4 minutes.  The critically injured will start being evacuated from the scene within ten minutes and the scene is normally cleared of all victims in under an hour.  One night during the conference I was a witness to a rear-end collision.  Even though a 911 call went out immediately, an ambulance took almost ten minutes to arrive and a half hour later they were still working with a single patient.  The Israelis have response to mass casualty incidents down to an art.

Triage was really one of the striking differences.  First responders in the United States will triage a scene based on severity of the injury.  Patients are broken into four categories – critical, delayed, walking wounded and dead.  This is the order in which the victims are removed from the scene.  We teach that triage takes thirty seconds per patient.  A full minute if the injury needs to be managed (such as severe bleeding or an obstructed airway).  This is considered lightning fast.  In Israel, medical teams triage based on a single criteria.  Will this patient die if they are not taken to a trauma center right now?

What’s most amazing is that all of this is done with minimal resources.  The Israeli EMS system only has two thousand employees for the entire country.  But to supplement the paid responders, there are twelve thousand EMS volunteers who always have their kits with them and can respond within seconds.  This would be the equivalent of the United States having a half million volunteer EMTs and paramedics, who are always ready, always on call.

The presentation that was most emotionally draining was Tactics of Scene Response where the presenter went over how the Israeli EMS respond to and process a mass casualty terrorism scene.  The presentation was filled with image after image of actual incidents, strewn with bodies and debris.  It’s hard to imagine anyone actively working in such an environment on a day to day basis.

The presentation that I enjoyed the most was on the Israeli search and rescue teams.  They provide the same services that are performed by search and rescue in the United States, although they are structured differently politically, reporting up to the nationalized police force.  The presentation was very simple and very direct, but it stood out for the anecdotal stories of the rescue missions their teams undertake.  Anyone who has ever worked search and rescue can appreciate the type of insane situations that people get themselves into and what search and rescue has to do to get them out.

Other sessions in the conference focused on the psychology of a disaster, communications needs, business continuity, resilient communities and ready responders.  In all there were nearly a hundred sessions and talks, presented by emergency response specialists from all walks of life and from across the United States and Israel.

There were also over fifty vendors, representing entities that provide services and equipment used by emergency management.  A number of them carried state of the art equipment that represents tomorrow’s standards in emergency response.  There were entities that can provide training or staff or a back office function, as well as those who offer logistical or planning support for any type of a need.

A first time event in Denver, the UASI Shared Strategies for Homeland Security conference was masterfully planned and executed and brought together hundreds of emergency response professionals from across the United States to share ideas and discover new best practices.  It is my sincere hope that this will not be a one time event.

Homeland Security Conference Draws International Speakers, Hundreds of Participants, including O.M.E.G.A.

Denver, Colorado hosted an international panel of speakers from the Public and Private Sector at the Denver Urban Area Security Initiative’s Shared Strategies for Homeland Security Conference, from December 13th to the 16th, at the Sheraton Hotel.

700 attendees from disciplines such as Citizen Preparedness Groups, First Responders, Emergency Medical, Law Enforcement, Firefighting, Bomb Disposal, and more attended.  Tracks on Business and Critical Infrastructure, Community Preparedness, Medical and Public Health, and Responder Training had everyone who attended wishing the conference lasted longer, so they could hit all the sessions.

Especially informative were sessions hosted by the Israeli experts, since it is rare to have so many Homeland Security experts from that country in one place in Denver.

Domestic experts and speakers included Dr. Dennis Mileti, former head of the Natural Hazards Center with the University of Colorado, who spoke on Social Media and Public Warnings in Disasters.

SSHS with Dennis Mileti

Dr. Dennis Mileti, Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado, Natural Hazards Center, presented a talk on Social Media and Public Warnings. He was very energetic and animated for the entire presentation.

Citing that for over a hundred years, our nation has funded psychology and sociology programs, many of which have studied how people react/are affected by disasters.  Using this data, we know how to issue public warnings.  The art of warnings is, in fact, applied social sciences.  The key to issuing warnings:

1) People are hard-wired in a particular way.  People’s reality has nothing to do with actual reality.  Reality is what people think.  In disasters, people think they are safe.  People do not perceive risk, nor do they personalize it. They actually think they are safe and in the absence of disasters, each day that goes by convinces them they are right.  How do you overcome people’s perceptions of safety?

2) Changing peoples perception in the warning process takes time to transit from ‘you are safe’ to ‘you are not safe and need to act.’  Primarily, people react to social interactions, not warnings.  Essentially, warnings spur the discussions, but actions are driven by interactions.  The key is “time”.

Other experts and dignitaries included FEMA Deputy Director Richard Serino, Region VIII Administrator Robin Finegan, and Mogen David Adom (The Israeli member of the International Federation of Red Cross Societies,) Director General, Uri Sacham.

For more information about this fascinating and informative conference, you can visit the Shared Strategies for Homeland Security blog at http://www.sharedstrategiesblog.com/.

2010 Urban Area Security Initiative Conference

December 13 through 16, 2010, Max Khaytsus, George Sullivan and I had the privilege of attending the 2010 Urban Area Security Initiative Conference (UASI).  Max and I also had the privilege of being sponsored by the North Central Region All Hazards Region.  It is wonderful having members of O.M.E.G.A. be given the opportunity to attend these events and not have the burden of the expense of the conference impede our attendance.

The conference was a unique homeland security effort.  It had a large number of agencies and partners from across the region, as well as national and international representation, pitching in to help support and participate in the conference.  It was actually four conferences in one with the primary goal of bringing together emergency managers/first responders, healthcare professionals, business and critical infrastructure representatives and community preparedness and resiliency experts to share ideas on how to improve collective security.  Organized by tracks to help subject matter experts share ideas within their areas and then through combined sessions with other tracks, the conference was a ground-breaking effort in information-sharing.

The keynote speakers were exceptional, but for my personal edification, if the breakout sessions had an Israeli presenter, I went to that session.  I was never disappointed with the presenters.

Some of the memorable quotes:

1. On Suicide Bombers:

Question: We noticed that in 2008, there were over 1700 IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) detonating somewhere in Israel (Israel is about the size of New Jersey).  That is about five or six times a day.  Now in 2010, we see on the screen only 240 (once a day).  What changed?”

Answer: We finished building the wall around Gaza.  Now the terrorist have to go under the wall with tunnels, go over the wall with their missiles or go around the wall through the ocean (where our Navy is waiting for them).  It now takes them longer to get to their targeted destination with a higher risk of detection and capture.

2. On Airport Security:

a. “Do you do profiling in your Airport Security?”

b. Answer: “Yes.” (with a shrug of the shoulder and tilt of the head)

c. Follow up Question: “Does it bother you that people may be having their civil liberties disrupted or impacted.

d. Answer: “The Terrorist have been the only ones complaining.  Besides, it is more than just asking the questions.  Our trained security observes the response to the questions.  Since initiating this approach, we only had one hijacking from our airport in over 30 years.”

e. Question: “Isn’t your security screening easier because you have only one airport? (Ben Gurion International Airport)

f. Answer: Yes we have only one International Airport.  But we are a small country with only 7 million citizens.  You in America are 308 Million.  I think the ratio is in your favor.

3. On using volunteers:

a. Question to the audience: Why don’t you use your volunteers more?

b. As all the heads of our served agencies turned their heads in unison in my direction: “What do you mean?” I asked

c. Statement: “When I came to New Orleans to retrieve Jewish remains from the damaged areas created by Hurricane Katrina, my team was the only volunteers there.”

d. Response: Because you were there for religious reasons and have a foreign accent, you were given more latitude than your American counterparts.  For us in Colorado, we were very involved in Operation Safe Haven that provided a place of refuge for the hurricane survivors.  In our organization, O.M.E.G.A., we not only provide our own communication, but we are trained in Incident Command System protocols, that allow us to interface with the Operations Command Staff with very little instructional overhead on their part.”

e. Speakers Response: “So you do use volunteers, just differently.”

f. Answer: “Yes.”

There were no punches pulled or excuses given at the conference.  It was a great exchange of information from the experts (professional and volunteer) to the audience.  And sometimes the audience and the presenter changed seats.

Bottom line, I had a great time!