Category Archives: News

Volunteer!

Chickens. You tend not to think about chickens in a flood. The initial thoughts include washed out roads, neighborhoods under water, deep rushing streams, flash flooding canyons. Those were our impressions of floods when we were deployed to support the flooding across northeastern Colorado. What we didn’t see coming were a pair of chickens.

We talked about our deployment in our Mission Briefing and made mention of the famous chickens. But in the real truth is that the chickens had managed to ascend from fame to infamy.

OMEGA has to follow privacy rules and that means we can’t release people information (although we do share it as needed with other deployed agencies, in this case including the Boulder County Office of Emergency Management, the Boulder Sheriff’s Office, the St. Vrain Valley School District and the American Red Cross). But we can tell the public about what we do and since there are no rules about privacy for animals, we can use them as a story proxy.

The two chickens that were recovered in the field and brought to Niwot made it to our Facebook page and we immediately started getting shares and likes. The Colorado Division of Emergency Management shared that status and so did Denver 7 KMGH and a multitude of charities and businesses and a sea of individuals followed, adding up to over 200 first degree shares, before others shared the status from the pages of their friends and businesses that they followed. The reach from our page alone exceeded 43,000 and there’s no telling what the actual reach was after all the shares and shares of shares and …

We received a lot of feedback and praise, both in public and in private and two unsuspecting chickens became rock stars overnight. A lot of people asked about donating goods or volunteering to help and those questions are appreciated more than anything else by those on the front lines, but managing donations and volunteers in the middle of a disaster is a disaster in itself.

When the world is running down and everything is critical, integrating spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers is simply not possible. Background checks can’t be performed in the middle of a disaster and training can not be provided to well meaning individuals. Likewise, there are no resources to process and distribute donations. Everything that happens has to happen quickly. You’ve probably noticed in the news that in a disaster, agencies taking donations primarily ask for cash. Cash can be used to purchase materials to fill the gaps in the response.

If you want to donate non-perishable goods, please take an opportunity to do so when no disaster looms. Take these items to the Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way or another locally designated donation center. Or even to your church. Given the time, donated goods can be sorted and organized, packaged and prepared for distribution in the event of a disaster.

And if you want to volunteer during a disaster, your best bet is to volunteer before the disaster strikes so that you can be trained and vetted and be ready to hit the ground running. Consider what you want to do. Would you be happy just doing donation deliveries and welfare checks with your church or a community organization? Or do you want to work in a disaster area with organizations like the Red Cross or the Salvation Army? Or perhaps volunteer for office duties with your local government or the United Way or even be a rescuer with a search and rescue team or as a reserve police officer or a volunteer fire fighter? There are a lot of opportunities out there, but the vast majority require at least some training ahead of a deployment and most opportunities will require a background check.

We encourage volunteerism, but not just during a disaster. Engage your community! Don’t wait for something bad to happen before you stand up to help. Make a difference today. If two chickens can shake up a community this much, think of what you can do if you volunteer!

A Plane to Crash

In the spring of 2013 Clear Creek County asked us to host a plane crash exercise for regional Citizen Corps components. The exercise evolved into Operation Rocky Slope and featured a plane that could not make the ridge and crashed at the Loveland Ski Area.

Exercises are easy to plan. We host several every year and we have a good understanding of capabilities that we are testing and results that we are trying to capture. Most of the time exercises are easy to set up for, too. Logistics generally aren’t a big hassle for us, but every now and again we find ourselves in a situation where planning the exercise is a logistical nightmare that takes months to coordinate.

The plane crash, naturally, required that we have a plane as a prop. We’ve done this in the past and can normally go to the Centennial Airport to borrow one of their crash fuselages. This time around that did not work well for us. The airport was running an exercise with South Metro Fire and needed the fuselages for their exercise.

We asked the Denver International Airport about what they had available and while they do have a crash plane for training, it’s a full size 737 and taking it off the airport property is simply not an option. We checked with the Front Range Airport and the Rocky Mountain Airport and neither had anything to offer us. The trail of options ran dry. We had no plane.

But never underestimate dumb luck. A friend of ours, who is a member of Arapahoe County ARES, is also an inspector for the FAA. He heard that we were looking for a plane and stepped up to help broker a deal.

J. W. Duff Aircraft in Denver, an aircraft equipment parts (and junkyard) supplier was being sold to ACME Aircraft Sales & Salvage and would be consolidating facilities into a single location. This meant that they needed to move a multitude of planes – some working, most not – to centralize their facility. We were given a hand with negotiations and the new owners agreed to let us come out and pick out something appropriate for the exercise. This wasn’t going to be a loan. We were getting a fuselage to keep for good. That’s a pretty big deal, because even grounded planes are sinfully expensive.

On July 3 we came out to the J. W. Duff location to look at their inventory and select something that would work for us. We brought with us the director of the Community College of Aurora Center for Simulation Studies and the Disaster Management Institute. The goal was to share the plane. We collaborate with CSS/DMI on a regular basis and the plane would be made available to them in exchange for having them store it for us.

Picking Out a Plane

The old Beechcraft (Model 50) L-23 Seminole RU-8D did not look like much, sitting among rows of antiquated aircraft.

The simple task of picking out a fuselage turned out infinitely complex. J. W. Duff owns thousands of planes. We spent a long time looking around, identifying planes that were the right size, the right age, the right condition. It turned out to be a task far more complicated than we ever anticipated.

In the end, after much spirited debate, we settled on an old Beechcraft (Model 50) L-23 Seminole RU-8D, manufactured in 1957 and used by the Army Security Agency in Vietnam for aerial surveillance. At the time we figured that the plane would have an interesting history, but knew nothing until we started making calls and asking about the venerable plane. Based on its serial number, still etched in the metal identification plate, we were able to track down retired U.S. Army Captain Jon Myrhe, who said:

The RU-8D was a modified Beechcraft B-50 ‘Twin Bonanza,’ used by the Army Security Agency (ASA) in Vietnam for classified missions. While I don’t have specifics, I do know that #051 flew in RVN as part of the Army’s 509th Radio Research (RR) Group. Her unit’s RU-8D’s served in Phu Bai (I Corps), Long Thanh (III Corps), and Can Tho (IV Corps). I may well have flown that airplane in 1971-1972 while serving with the 138th Aviation Company (RR) in Long Thanh.

That was a pretty cool piece of information to retrieve and only served to confirm the colorful history that our plane had.

The plane was picked up just in advance of Operation Rocky Slope and parked in front of my house, waiting for the trip up to the mountains. The neighbors know what I do as a “hobby” and a car in the driveway loading or unloading response gear generally does not get a second glance, except from the neighborhood kids who think that having search and rescue neighbors is the coolest thing ever. The day that the plane spent parked in front of the house earned us a lot of attention. Everyone wanted a picture with it, including the UPS guy making a delivery in the neighborhood.

Waiting for Flight Clearance

Shadow diligently guards the surveillance plane parked in the street.

The following day Jennifer and I took the plane up to the continental divide. Not a lot of activity on the streets on a Saturday at 6 AM, but before long cars were speeding past us and pulling over, the occupants jumping out and taking pictures of the plane being towed. I have no doubt that there are dozens of Facebook pictures out there with the plane being towed.

Today the plane is hiding out on a farm in Bennett. Our goal is to clean it up and potentially do some historical restoration to restore dignity back to the battered fuselage. We will use the plane in future simulations, but we don’t want to forget the rich history of this heroic piece of equipment.

We are grateful to ACME Aircraft Sales & Salvage for this invaluable donation to OMEGA and to all the agencies and individuals who stepped up to make this donation a reality.

Simulated Plane Crash Keeps Rescuers on Their Toes

KUSA’s Matt Renoux came to Operation Rocky Slope, a plane crash simulation at the Loveland Ski Area in Clear Creek County, to cover the regional full scale exercise, a plane crash.  Matt diligently spoke with exercise planners and agency representatives and filmed select segments of the exercise.  Below is the content of his report, which you can also see on the KUSA site at http://archive.9news.com/rss/story.aspx?storyid=346130.

Loveland Ski Area-It’s only a training exercise but organizers hope it will make rescue personnel faster and safer in a real emergency.

On Saturday emergency responders trained at the Loveland Ski Area. They hiked up to a simulated plane crash scene and helped a number of volunteers who played the part of victims.

While plane crashes are rare Simulation Organizer Max Khaytsus says the hope is to prepare for a worst case scenario with a full scale exercise aimed at keeping rescue personal safe and speedy.

“It would be a very bad thing to have happen pretty much anywhere but over the past couple of years we have had a number of incidents where planes have crashed, some where people walked away some, where it wasn’t as good and Clear Creek Emergency Management asked us to run a simulation for them with a plane crash in the mountains just so they are ready and their resources are ready to respond to an incident such as this,” said Khaytsus.

Saturday’s exercise brought in volunteers with the Community Emergency Response Team, (CERT), Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and the Salvation Army.

We appreciate the time given us by KUSA and the positive report supporting volunteer driven rescue services.

Living in a Disaster

The large room was dark with only minimal light seeping in from gaps in the brick and cinder block walls. It was far too large to be certain in the actual dimensions of the facility. There was an eerie stillness in the twilight, sporadically broken by the sound of dripping water, the scraping of something on a rough surface and an occasional moan. The air inside was stagnant and somewhat chilly on this February afternoon.

Beams of light cut through the darkness, flashlights wielded by an unseen group. They were not strong enough to reach the opposite wall. The lights swept along the debris cluttered floor and then, tentatively, some angled up, illuminating an insignificant section of a dilapidated ceiling some thirty feet above. The building was not safe. It groaned as if greeting the light it has not seen in some time.

“Search and Rescue! If you can walk, come to the sound of my voice!”

“Help me!” a woman’s tortured voice responded from the darkness. In the distance something fell and bounced on the dusty cement floor. There was a scuffing sound as if someone was pulling themselves across the floor.

The beam of one of the lights fell on a young girl. She could not have been older than eight, small and scared, wearing a dirty coat. Her hands were bloody and there was a smear of blood on her face. “My daddy is hurt,” she pleaded. “Please help him.”


Staging Area

Civil Air Patrol squadron setting up at the staging area.

It was less than an hour earlier that a call went out to Colorado’s North Central Region’s volunteer responders of the Community Emergency Response Team, the Civil Air Patrol and the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. It had been snowing for over a day now, a thick heavy snow, accumulating in excess of an inch an hour, forming drifts higher than six feet. The official snowfall totals broke two feet at noon and some areas experienced well more precipitation than the official numbers had suggested. Accident alerts had been replaced with travel restrictions, not that many vehicles could overcome the drifts in the roadways. Police, fire and ambulance units were no longer able to respond in their customary vehicles. The snow was so deep that they were covered up to their bumpers and hopelessly stuck. Paramedics were responding to calls for help on the backs of snow mobiles. And that was still good news. Now, coming up on mid-afternoon, emergency dispatchers were taking calls for sagging roofs. Some were still putting up a fight against the rapidly accumulating snow. Others were in the process of giving up.

Such was the case here. A 90,000 square foot facility, a two acre building, finally gave in to all the snow. Power failed. A portion of the roof caved in. Walls and supports buckled. The acoustic ceiling and hanging signage and lights all collapsed. It was the worst case scenario that everyone had feared. Dozens of people trapped in a shattered facility, many hurt. And rescue was not coming. Powerful as a fire engine is, it simply could not plow its way beyond the doors of the fire station. Too much snow. And too many calls for help.


Planning Strategy

Volunteer repsonders studying the map and planning response strategy in the face of a disaster.

An event such as this was foreseen by emergency planners years in advance and in the summer of 2002 Bill Owens, then governor of Colorado, signed an executive order creating the infrastructure for establishing regional emergency response coordination and implementing mutual aid agreements between a multitude of agencies that had never even considered working together in the past. It was not long before these All-Hazards regions were taking advantage of a resource that had not been utilized before – their own citizens, who were willing to be trained to respond in the event of a disaster.

There are a lot of things involved in responding to a disaster. Volunteers are trained in triage, treatment, search and rescue, the psychology of a disaster. There is training in the Incident Command System and the National Incident Management System, both now mandatory for all professional responders in the United States. And there’s additional training in operating shelters, rescuing animals, responding to special needs facilities, evacuation, traffic control. The list goes on. Volunteer responders are not expected to be on call 24/7 or to risk their lives when it comes to saving others, but many who train are ready and willing to do anything needed at a moment’s notice.


A team of responders entered a section of offices along the south wall of the building. They evaluated the ragged walls for stability and safety. There was moderate damage. Any more snow up above and this section of the building might go as well. The first collapse on the back side of the building was not kind to any part of the facility. Ceiling tiles littered the floor and electrical wires dangled down from up above. If they entered this area, their search would have to be quick.

Slowly and carefully the team moved in. The beams of their lights illuminated a dusty and littered hallway with office doors on either side. There was a single dim bulb dangling down from the ceiling. It cast negligible light, but what little there was offered a welcome supplement to the flashlights.

In one of the corners the responders spotted a young woman sitting among the debris. There was a bloody cut on her forehead. The team leader knelt down in front of her.

“We’re going to help you,” he said. “What’s your name? Tell me what happened.”

What happened was really irrelevant. Everyone knew the series of events. The reason for the question was the head injury. These can be tricky. There’s always a lot of blood with a head wound. Sometimes the victim is okay to get up and walk out. Other times they may have a concussion and be suffering from disorientation. And in a worst case scenario, they may be going into shock or have suffered neurological damage. Assessment is vital before moving the patient.

“My leg hurts really bad,” the woman said.

That was good news. She was responsive. She had sensation. And she understood that these were first responders. The cut on her head, messy as it looked, was secondary. A second team member knelt down by the woman. As the leader worked to expose the leg, bandages were produced from the first aid hit.

“Right leg is broken,” the leader said. “She won’t be able to walk out. We’ll need to take her.”

Patient Treatment

Responders treating an injury in a building collapse.

The team worked quickly to bandage the woman’s head and splint her leg. The break turned out to be an open fracture, exposing the tips of bone through torn skin. It was grizzly to look at. There was a lot of blood. There was a tremendous danger of infection and rapid treatment was highly desired, but it could not happen here. She would have to be taken to the medical staging area and then be processed in order of injuries. Exposed bone is bad. But there were other life threatening injuries being brought back that would take priority. For now the team needed to prepare her.

In a disaster medical packaging tends to happen quickly. You really only have seconds to evaluate a patient and give them a priority. First aid in the field is minimal. You stabilize them to prevent further damage, try to keep them comfortable. And you do your best to get them back to where better medical help can be provided.

The bleeding was controlled, if not stopped, and the broken leg was splinted. It still needed to be cleaned and the exposed bone kept viable, but that would not be done here. And the break would not be set until the woman reached a hospital. Mass casualty events such as this call for compromises when it comes to treatment. The responders, already stretched to the limit, must provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.

“We need to check the rest of the rooms,” the team leader told the woman. “We’ll be right back.”

“No!” the woman yelled. “Don’t leave me!”

It was too late. The team had moved on. This is a part of the procedure, too. Never split up. Never expose your team to unnecessary danger. A lone traveler in a large scale disaster is at the whims of the environment. Structural instability, chemical agents and potential for looters all expose the responders to dangers that are better met as a team.

“Please don’t leave me!” the woman wailed. “I don’t want to die!”

It can be hard to step away from a patient. The seconds you spend with them build an emotional bond. You see their pain, their distress. You try to remain an impartial observer, but when you touch them, talk to them, feel their pain, you take something back with you and continuing down a dark corridor, having left your patient behind, you inevitably acknowledge to yourself that you are afraid for them.


The entire disaster feels more real than anything else you’ve ever done. There’s blood and screaming and a ton of litter that makes you think a bomb may have gone off in here. You feel adrenaline pumping through your body. Every noise makes you jump. You are using real medical supplies from your go-kit and the sweat beading on your forehead is merely uncomfortable until you tilt your head and it runs along the rubber guard of your helmet and manages to drip into your eye.

Media Crew

A media crew follows a team through the simulated disaster area.

If this isn’t real, it feels like it should be, but deep down inside you know that this is only a drill. It’s a miserable 20 degrees outside and the ground is covered with three inches of snow that fell the day before. There’s no immediate danger. No one is going to die today. But it all feels real and the only hint that you are in a simulated disaster are the two instructors watching your team and the television crew with their big camera that keeps getting in your way. Pressure to perform? You’d worry about looking good on TV, but that’s not the concern right now. You don’t even feel the pressure of having an instructor three feet behind you. You figure they will remind you of the five things you could have done better later on in the hot wash. It feels real and you’re on auto-pilot. You drilled this one scene a hundred times. You saw different faces and different settings. Sometimes there was too much light. Sometimes too little. Some days it was cold. Others it was hot. Your patient was a young boy and an elderly woman. You did this in the wind and in the rain and it always boils down to one factor. You’re here to save lives. You have a patient. She is afraid. She is bleeding. You have to splint a broken leg so you can load this patient on a backboard without causing additional damage. You saw that broken leg with the protruding bone a hundred times. This is one hundred and one. You know how to fix it. Do it fast.


How do civilians find themselves in a situation such as this?

The short answer is that you volunteer for this sort of stuff. There are many reasons that people do this. Most feel that they have to give something back to society or that they need to be the guardians of their neighborhoods. There are no adrenaline junkies here. You get through an exercise and your only thought is that you’re wiped. It’s stressful, overwhelming. It’s made to feel real. No one does this because it’s fun. It’s done because it’s necessary, because someone has to do it. Not all rescues turn out well.


A beam of light hurried along the floor, coming to the tattered wall. It darted up and across, hitting the front of an old walk-in freezer. Someone stepped into the light, obstructing the view. Another beam joined the first, focusing on the fatigues of a rescuer. The helmeted figure tugged at the door. It took an effort to have it open. It was pitch black inside.

“Light!” came the order.

Three people slowly walked into the freezer. Another member of the team stood at the freezer door, holding it open. The risk of having it close with people inside was too great.

“What is it?” someone asked.

There was a long pause in sounds and action as hesitation and indecision swept over the group, then one of the responders stepped out and keyed his radio.

“Base, Team Two.”

“Go ahead.”

“We just entered Zone Two. We have two fatalities in a walk-in freezer.”


Medical Needs

Triaged patients in the medical area, awaiting treatment.

In disasters people die. That’s an inevitable fact of life. Some will die long before rescue arrives. Others will linger only to die during the rescue. For some it’s a matter of the right aid at the right time. For others it’s destiny. Nothing the rescuers can do will save them. In our training we practice dealing with death as much as we practice saving lives. The responders must understand that they will not win all the time. Sometimes the damage is too great. Other times it’s a matter of how the situation comes together. Is the right answer searching to your right or to your left? Do you as a search and triage team pause to bandage a cut hand or do you tag the location and let the extraction team behind you deal with that. Do you clear the airway twice on an unconscious patient or do you do it three times before moving on? Speed is always important in a rescue, but speed can cause problems of its own. A sloppy neck brace will still result in a paralyzed patient. Sometimes you won’t get to the freezer in time for those inside to be saved. Sometimes you won’t even think that you need to look inside.


We train a lot. We focus a lot of our energies on emergency response. We know that we will never save the world, but we live in a metropolitan area pushing three million people and should disaster strike, we know that there won’t be enough professional responders to handle all the problems. We know that a large scale disaster is far less likely than a million little ones, but in the large scale exercise we’re exposed to a little of everything that can happen to us.

In 2006 the Arapahoe County emergency manager requested that we take over the execution of Citizen Corps regularly scheduled exercises for the county. Planning an exercise is a very labor intensive task. We didn’t really understand what we were getting into at the time. It turned out that there’s a lot to planning an exercise. You don’t just sit down and write a script. You have to find the right facility and negotiate for it, you have to get your responders and your volunteer victims. You need to solicit your served agencies to provide you with instructors and safeties. And you need to budget resources for dignitaries and observers who will come see how the exercise works. Local media is both your salvation and your bane. You need the world’s best public information officer to keep the media interested and on a short leash. The media is a fickle animal. They’ll bite your hand just as soon as they’ll shake it. We all have a fundamental fear of being interviewed. You can give the most brilliant five minute speech of your career and have it edited down to a thirty second sound bite that will make you sound like the world’s greatest moron. And then there are all the incidentals. There are supplies for the exercise, meals and drinks for the mob, PR with local businesses and paperwork. In triplicate.

Pulling a large scale disaster simulation together takes four to five hundred man hours. This is the time invested by our group. The immediate contribution is that we save this much time for the professional responders. It’s time that they can use to write grants, file regulatory paperwork, catch bad guys and put out real fires. Their only commitment comes down to helping out at the exercise by making additional instructors and safeties available.

Our first disaster exercise was in July of 2006. It was Operation Tornado Alley, where a tornado ripped through a subdivision on a sleepy Saturday morning. Well over a hundred people participated in the exercise. It was the biggest civilian driven disaster exercise ever held in Colorado and it was an overwhelming success. The first attempt always has a make it or break it component. Everyone loved it and the emergency manager asked us to host another exercise.

On February 4, 2007 we hosted Operation Snowflake. It turned out to be an ironically topical exercise as Colorado was hammered by severe snowstorms in December and January. We may not have planned the weather, but the exercise was put on the books in the fall and the weather only served as good publicity for us.

The disaster was a crippling winter blizzard that paralyzed the metropolitan area and caused extensive damage that required rescue operations. Ten members of OMEGA participated in the exercise. Six were staff for the exercise and four were responders taking part in the event. We spent three months planning this exercise with the last six weeks being a frenzy of meetings, e-mails and phone calls to make sure all the “i”s were dotted and all the “t”s crossed. We thought, after our first experience of running an exercise, that the second time around will be easier because we will have a better idea of where our attention needs to be focused and will have a fundamental exercise planning infrastructure in place. That was a mistake. Like every fingerprint (and every disaster), each exercise plan is different from the last. About the only thing that we recycled was the ICS-207 Organizational Chart form. And even there we moved roles around to give everyone an opportunity to try different planning roles. Just like the responders we are now training, it is our goal to insure that any one of us can take on any role that needs to be filled.

There is always stress leading up to the exercise. We’re counting confirmations from the participants, trying to make sure that we have all the proper gear reserved. Always worrying that we’ll run out of something that we desperately need or that we will fall short on the projection of the number of responders and role players who will attend.

We had a snowstorm just before the exercise. There was fear that it would prevent people from coming. No one wants to go someplace on a miserably cold day with snow on the ground. We underestimated. We had a great turnout, once again breaking the 100 participant mark and matching our previous exercise in size. Now we were worried about having enough food!

Our exercise staff, having worked closely together for months, now split off in different directions, trying to get our respective areas ready for the event. A 90,000 square foot building is about as big as it sounds. It was a tenth of a mile long and half that in depth. We did a lot of walking. Personnel from the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, South Metro Fire and Aurora’s Office of Emergency Management took our script and mulaged the role players. After two of the instructors got a walking tour of the facility, they gave the tour to all other instructors and safeties as they arrived. Things came together well for the exercise. Denver’s ABC and CBS affiliate stations had their crews come in just before the exercise got started. They requested that each crew be deployed with a team going inside to get a feel for what a real rescue is like.

The exercise was on!

Our objective for the exercise is not to have a flawless rescue. We know that it won’t be flawless under any of circumstances and while a nice dream to hold on to, the real purpose of the exercise is to refresh skills and evaluate skill sets that need to be supplemented with additional training. We’re always training, after all. Technology changes, medical knowledge evolves, better methods to do the same old thing are created. And the dynamics of teams change. We have no guarantees who we will respond to a disaster with. We need to meet responders from local municipalities and agencies, practice our craft while wearing different hats and treat each disaster as a separate event rather than use a cookie cutter approach to resolving these incidents.

The event was not perfect, but it accomplished our objectives. We were able to identify areas where additional training is needed and it will allow us to plan better for the future. Additional classroom refreshers will be scheduled for the existing responders and future volunteers may see an altered curriculum to help them grasp all the fine points of managing a disaster. And we are once again at work, looking for a new facility for an exercise that is being targeted for late spring or early summer.

Sound Bite

Cunningham Fire Chief Jerry Rhodes explains responder tactics to KCNC’s Karlyn Tilley.

Both KCNC and KMGH spent the twenty-four hour news cycle after our exercise running the footage they shot on every news program they had. We got a lot of coverage and a lot of good publicity. As one of the responders later commented, “they made us look like rock stars”. The editing was flawless and the reporters showed and explained what it is that we do and how we do it. We could not have asked for better coverage!

Operation Snowflake

On February 4, 2007 we hosted Operation Snowflake in the City of Aurora.  Operation Snowflake was a simulation of a major snow storm for metropolitan Citizen Corps units.  It was in development for about three months and mostly under the radar, but on December 22, 2006 a major snow storm in Colorado collapsed roofs at Aurora’s Hoffman Heights Shopping Center and that brought a lot of attention to Operation Snowflake, resulting in much media coverage:

February 4, 2007 @ 5 PM by KCNC 4 –

February 4, 2007 @ 6 PM by KCNC 4 –

February 4, 2007 @ 10 PM by KCNC 4 –

February 4, 2007 @ 10 PM by KMGH 7 –

February 5, 2007 @ 6 AM by KCNC 4 –

February 5, 2007 @ 7 AM by KMGH 7 –

The exercise was attended by CERT, ARES and CAP and supported by the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office and Cunningham Fire Protection District.  We are grateful for the extensive media coverage to get the word about the program out.

Blizzard 2006

How often do you have two major blizzards back to back? That was a big question in Colorado on December 29 as the mighty second storm in a week rolled through the state. Full of anticipation Jennifer and I waited for our ride down to the State Emergency Operation Center to try and save the world. Looking out the window I wasn’t 100% convinced that travel was realistic and getting down to the State EOC, some 15 miles away, seemed like a voyage to Mars.

We were in direct communications with the people at the EOC, both on the phone and on the radio. And we knew that a “secret service looking SUV” was coming to get us. Of course this starts the story a week after it began and I will back up to the morning of December 20 to start in the proper place – at the very beginning.

We knew that a big storm was coming several days in advance. ARES District 22 works closely with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office and with the National Weather Service and as soon as the weather model predictions started converging on the Denver Metropolitan area, we started getting calls and e-mails. We were on alert Monday before the storm. “Alert” is a scary word a lot of times, but in our first responder world it means that something bad may happen and we should be ready in the event that it does. In the vernacular it means check your go-kit, resupply what you managed to pullout and keep monitoring the usual (internal) news channels. Alerts come and go.

Then during the day on Tuesday we were told that D-22 is going to stand-by. That sounds less threatening, but in reality means that a callout is immanent and that we better be 100% certain that if activated, we should be ready to go. It was hard on Tuesday, with the temperature in the 50s and a bright sunny sky to contemplate that a major winter storm was going to bury Colorado. Still, the gear got double-checked. We were ready for scary weather.

I went into work Wednesday morning with snow already coming down at a good clip. I knew how bad it was going to get. The D-22 latest weather update came in just short of 6 AM as I was getting ready to head out. Rather than doing my usual time, I started on the contingency plan as soon as I was in the office. I pulled everything I’d need for a couple of days of work. I identified all the on-call staff so that I could hit any team from home. When the management started showing up at 8 AM I made sure to visit them and make them aware we need to be ready for an early closure. That did not meet with good results. Raising the alert made people think I was afraid of snow or just trying to dodge work. I figured that if I was ready and they weren’t, the opinions would change rapidly as the day progressed. I met with my boss and made her aware of the situation. She knows that I’m a first responder and she did not question my reasoning. Rather she told me that if I needed to go, it was safety first. She had no problems with me working from home. In fact, her plan was to get all her things pulled together and work from home as well.

I made it through my one critical meeting of the day at 10 AM and as soon as it was over, shoved all my things into my briefcase and headed for the door. It was 10:40 AM when in the corridor, just short of the exit, I heard that the company was closing due to snow at 11 AM. All non-essential staff was told to go home immediately. About 80 people would be put up at a hotel down the road in the event they were needed to handle an emergency during the storm.

Driving out of the garage I realized that my car did not have the traction it normally does. In fact, the bottom of it was plowing the street as I went. This was not a good sign. On the radio the D-22 weather net was already on. Resources were being pulled together and roles identified. The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office was going to essential personnel only and later in the day they would want D-22 personnel to man the Arapahoe County EOC and any shelters that Red Cross would open.

Driving down I-225 I got on the radio and gave a weather report. The bowl in front of the Cherry Creek Dam was rapidly filling up with heavy, mushy snow. I saw a lot of vehicles slipping and sliding. I saw two overconfident SUV drivers blow right off the road into snow banks. One then got rearended by another car. I called the sheriff’s office to report that and was transferred to the Greenwood Village police to make the report.

In a normal situation, I’d stop and help at an accident. That’s a part of the training that CERT and ARES get. But here, seeing how vehicles larger than mine were having problems, I chose to stay in the ruts made by tires ahead of me and get home rather than getting stuck.

My normal 20 minute commute lasted over an hour and when I got home, I was greeted by a two foot drift against the garage. I had to fight my way inside to get the shovel and dig a trench for my car for the last thirty or forty feet. That was a Herculean effort and as I went along, I’d pause to run the car up a little closer before digging some more. That was a good strategy because by the time I got into the garage, it was impossible to tell where the front of the drive was. It was all covered by snow in a half hour.

Jennifer was in the process of closing up shop as well and heading home. I made weather reports from home. Some of the D-22 members were activated and deployed. I could not imagine going anywhere. By sunset the two foot snow drift was back up against the garage and it only managed to grow overnight. We monitored the radio and the news. The metropolitan area was shut down. State Patrol was begging people to stay home. All major highways through Denver were closed and when we got up in the morning, there was a five foot drift of snow leaning on the patio door. If we had doubts about being snowed in the day before, it was official now. On the news snow plows were fighting a losing battle.

Not to worry. I brought work home and even though the office was officially closed, I had plenty of work to do.

The snow finally stopped in the evening after some 40 hours of continuous snowfall. There were reports of anywhere from 28” inches of snow up to well over 40. The rain/snow gauge outside was designed to accommodate a catastrophic 12” of precipitation. It was buried for over 24 hours. Now I could only look out the window and wonder where to top of the patio rail might be.

The Colorado Front Range was slowly beginning to dig out. The Arapahoe County snowcat busted a fuel line in rescue operations overnight and D-22 put out a call for people with heavy duty vehicles to come to the rescue. There were concerns over hospital workers not being able to make their shifts and people running out of medical supplies. Rick Speaect volunteered the use of his truck for rescue work when the call went out on Friday morning, but he did not want to be running around the city alone, so he asked me to ride shotgun. While waiting for deployment, he came over together with Gaylene and Alaya and we broke out Catan to help pass the time.

We figured that with four responders we could run rescue if called and have two people to support us. We monitored the radio the entire day and evening. There was a lot of activity, but nothing came up in our immediate area and by 9 PM we were stood down from the storm. The snow plows were finally catching up and making access to hospitals, police stations and fire stations easier. Looking out the window of our hilltop home, I could see 20 miles of nothing but white with occasional trees and roofs peeking out.

Driving to work the following Monday was an unusual experience. Where snow plows had gone through snow was piled as much as 10 feet high along the sides of the road. Often I was driving through snow canyons, hoping that the hidden stop signs at intersections were being obeyed by the cross traffic.

And in the meantime another storm was brewing. On Tuesday we were once again warned that the big one was coming. That was a frightening thought. We did not have room for snow from another big one. The weather never got warm and the massive piles that had been created in the original cleaning were still the exact same size they were four days earlier. Plows and front loaders were now ramming mountains of snow to get them just a little further back in the streets in preparation for another large snowfall. Everyone was trying to meet this second wave head-on. D-22 was trying to get shifts at shelters and the EOC planned out. CERT started a call-out as well, looking for additional staff to handle shelters. The first storm taught everyone that people get stuck in bad weather and you don’t want to be the only responder running a shelter.

Jennifer and I got several offers for deployment. We discussed them, but decided not to take them on unless we were really needed. We did not want to get stranded at a post for two days straight. Then we got a call from the State EOC. They were competing with all the other agencies for staff and were ready to offer anything for some help. Late Thursday night they called us with an offer of transportation and catered meals to work a full shift. Our governor needed us!

So there I was at 7 AM, looking through the curtain of snow, which had been falling for about ten hours, wondering if the “secret service looking SUV” could make it out this far. On the radio the driver, Robert from D-24, was complaining that the roads were okay, but he couldn’t find any street signs. We had to guide him in without any “instruments”.

The ride to the EOC was interesting. There was some negligible traffic on the roads. The highways had been plowed a little, but no one could get their cars off the side streets to make it as far as the highways.

Jennifer and I got our briefing at the State EOC and the overnight team departed. We were left in the radio room with Perry, also from D-24, and Erik from the State EOC, monitoring all the traffic coming through. Between the four of us we had three radio frequencies in the 2-meter and 70-centimeter ranges, the radio room phones, packet clusters and Pactor and in the background we had a continuous stream of traffic from the Colorado MAC (Mutual Aid Channels) radios giving us constant updates and calls for help from the field. And we were monitoring the reports coming in on WebEOC, a software application that linked all parts of the state and offered status reports from local duty officers, situation reports, equipment deployments, shelter status, weather reports and the like. If we got a call with a question, we had the answer somewhere in that incredible mass of information that was coming in.

The State Emergency Operations Center is a huge facility. It was designed as a fully secured facility that could function isolated from the rest of the world for several days. It has sufficient equipment redundancy to handle two concurrent disasters. The operations center was staffed with two dozen people from all imaginable departments and the kitchen had trays and trays of food. Breakfast was burritos, veggies fruits, cereals, a countless variety of drinks and fudge that outlasted the overnight shift.

The good news was that this storm took a track reaching further to the south and Denver would not be hit as hard as it was in the first storm. Only fifteen to twenty inches of snow was expected. No problem, they said.

Around noon lunch came in. Chicken, turkey and ham. More veggies. Pastries. This was the cushy assignment that we were promised. Except for the heavy volumes of radio traffic that seemed to come and go with the wind. At this time we were also warned that there would be a press conference at 3 PM with Governor Bill Owens and Governor-Elect Bill Ritter. A call went out to make the place look clean as well as functional. We had a lot of paper to shuffle and hide.

Bill Ritter arrived around 1:30 PM. He was given a tour of the operations center, shown where things are, introduced to the managers of the operation. Then he was given a gee-whiz tour of the radio room. We can talk to anyone in the world from there, but all the techno-babble was quickly lost on his legal background. At one point he ended up directly behind me, looking over my shoulder. I was completing a radio traffic report and monitoring the field reports.

“That’s the WebEOC software we showed you,” someone said. The Governor-Elect moved on.

Governor Owens arrived around 2 PM and the EOC brass and state leaders headed for the briefing room to discuss the situation. We all knew what they would be talking about. The situation for Denver was great. This time around we were over prepared and got what’s considered a once a season hit. The eastern plains, on the other hand, were being hammered.

At 2:30 PM the media started arriving. Large trucks parked in the EOC lot, raising their boom antennas to get a clear signal back to their stations. The Press Room was opened. It was situated to give a strategic view of the hot action in the operations center.

By the time the press conference started, the next shift of operators arrived and I managed to get out into the operations center to watch the conference live. To my left I could see the two governors, the head of the Colorado State Patrol, the general in charge of Colorado’s National Guard and the director of the Colorado Department of Emergency Management. And facing them a room packed full with the press corps. I tuned my handheld radio to the KUSA signal. I chose them because KUSA was also being shown on one of the situation screens in the operations center. The goal of the Press Room overlooking the operations center was to show how a disaster is being handled live, but as soon as the conference was live, the operations center ground to a halt, everyone watching the screen.

A live conference is an exciting experience. The signal delay from the live conference to the radio was about one second. The delay to the television screens, broadcast by Comcast, was a full 7 seconds. If I missed something in one ear, I could easily catch it in the other.

After the conference the governors again walked the EOC. One of the operators caught them and asked if they would take a picture with the volunteer operators. Kissing babies is a part of politics and as it turned out, having your picture taken with volunteers was cool, too. After the pictures both governors shook our hands and told us we were performing a great service. Bill Owens paused as he shook my hand. He was no doubt thinking that I looked familiar, but he said nothing. He and I spent a cold night in September 2005 outside Building 900 in Lowery, taking in the Gulf coast refugees during Operation Safe Haven.

At this point Jennifer and I got our things and headed out of the EOC. As luck would have it, we ended up on the same elevator as Bill Owens and his two State Patrol body guards.

In theory this was the end of the activation. The snow had stopped falling and the roads were being cleared. In Denver, anyway. Snow was still coming down to the south and east, but as we left we were told that the EOC would close at the end of the day, transferring all operations to the Southeast Command Center set up in Pueblo.

Disasters don’t work on a set schedule and this blizzard was no different. At 9 PM we got a call from the State EOC that operations had been extended until 6 PM Saturday and we were asked if we could come in to work the 1 PM to close (7 PM) shift. The roads were getting better, our neighborhood was dug out and it was Saturday. The answer was a yes.

And so on Saturday, December 30 Jennifer and I returned to the EOC. The drive wasn’t horrible, although it wasn’t a super easy drive. We arrived just after noon, took the shift transfer briefing and assumed our posts. It was just the two of us working radios this day. This was going to be an easy wrap-up shift. We were just in time for lunch and we were promised dinner before being cut lose. It seemed like a good deal all around.

Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will and on December 30 Murphy was hanging out in Colorado. Things that had been inconvenient the last two days were now becoming medical emergencies. Power was out in many places. Roofs were sagging under feet of snow. People were running low on food and medicine. And worst of all, the region had gotten from three to five feet of snow on top of the blizzard a week earlier and trucks and SUVs could no longer overcome the snow depth. Plows were stuck. Army hummers were stuck. The deuce-and-a-halfs were stuck. It was down to snowmobiles, which could only deliver small items, and snowcats, which could extract no more than a half dozen people at a time. The calls for help this day were very different from stuck cars and trucks the day before. We had a ninety year old woman who was without heat for 36 hours and on the verge of pneumonia. We had a family with a three month old baby without food or power. We had a collapsed farmhouse roof. And there was a farmer who tried to go and feed his cattle at 6 AM and still had not returned. It was becoming an issue of life and death.

Around 2 PM the EOC got a message from a mayor of a town in eastern Colorado reporting that power was out and phones were down. They were severed from all services of the outside world and completely snowed in. We had to find communications fast to make sure that the needs of this little town could be acknowledged. We needed a ham operator with access to a generator and a good antenna. That was a tough order to fill. Until we found out that the power and phones were out at the mayor’s house only and all he needed to do was go over to his neighbor’s house and use the internet there.

No, not all of our emergencies were real emergencies. For some people lack of an internet connection is the end of the world. For us the end of the world was losing lives.

At 3 PM we started mobilizing hams up and down the Front Range. Our goal was to have a second communications backbone available in the event something was to fail. The snow was still coming down. We started calling up stations all the way down to Trinidad and out into Lamar and Springfield. Any operator who could hit a relay was told to stand by for an emergency. A repeater association in Colorado Springs linked their network of radios to ours and we had coverage going all the way down into Raton, New Mexico. ARES units in the southern portion of Colorado were mobilized. We got so busy that one of the EOC radio managers had to come in for three hours to help us handle all the traffic. And this was the time when the governor had to make a hard decision. He passed a message to the EOC via the Director of Emergency Management that the top priority was lives. He would find the money to pay for the operational costs later. There would be no excuse for loss of life. The EOC was now open at least until noon on January 1 and we were scrambling to fill upcoming shifts.

The earliest a relief shift could be brought in was 11 PM and our five or six hour assignment quickly evolved into an eleven hour shift.

It stopped snowing in Trinidad around 7 PM. Our reporting stations were giving snow measurements in the neighborhood of 5 feet. They managed to deploy one operator to a local hospital during the storm. They absolutely could not get anyone into any of the shelters.

Counties, businesses and individuals on the Western Slope were now offering use of snow mobiles and snowcats. Some wanted as much as $100 per hour of use. Others said that if we returned their equipment with a full tank of gas, they would be happy. The problem was that the equipment on the Western Slope was eight or more hours away and this was a situation where every minute counted. At one point we actually lost the Southeast Operations Center in Pueblo. We could not get phone or radio contact and for all we knew, the entire facility was gone. That was another hour of scrambling as everyone tried to figure out what had happened.

Power outages do weird stuff.

Our relief did eventually arrive. He came in all the way from Grand Lake, over 100 miles away on the other side of the continental divide. Things had generally quieted down by then. Cities and counties were working hard to dig out their highways. State Patrol and the National Guard were using the snow equipment they managed to beg, borrow and steal. There was a plan for an air rescue with the Civil Air Patrol first thing in the morning. CAP was already staging planes at the Peterson Air Force Base for a daybreak mission to fly over the impacted areas, identify structural damage, locate stranded vehicles and cattle. GPS coordinates would be transmitted down to the State Patrol and the National Guard who would then attempt a rescue. And anything that could not be reached by ground would be turned over to a rescue unit being staged at Buckley Air Force Base. They would be standing by with Black Hawks and Jay Hawks to extract any emergency cases.

Jenn and I managed to get home some time after midnight. The cat wanted to know where her food was and why it took us so long. We did not try reasoning with her. We were just too tired to try.

The news did report a lot of injuries associated with the storm. There were the usual snow shoveling heart attacks, broken bones, frost nip and frost bite. There was one indirect casualty. A tow truck driver who was hooking up a stranded car was hit and killed by a passing vehicle. But that was it. The Governor did not want dead people and the responders delivered. It was a terrible week, the two storms dumping as much as eight feet of snow in some areas, but the system held together and in the end things worked out. The greatest tragedy out of the storm was the loss of stranded cattle. Cows aren’t smart enough to turn away from the wind. Many huddled together in the storm and were simply covered over by snow. Others were too far away for hay to be delivered and were lost due to starvation. Estimates put losses at over 30,000 heads of cattle. The real number will probably not be known until all this snow melts in the spring.

There was an article in the Denver paper the following week comparing the two blizzards to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The author claimed that in direct contrast Colorado’s disaster was handled quietly without the federal government. No celebrities came to support the plight of the displaced and injured. The national media did not create satellite trailer parks to inundate the rest of the world with Colorado’s troubles. We knew the risks. We stood up to the storm and if need be, we’re ready to do it again.

Blizzards of 2006 – ARES

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and game, while both male and female reindeer grow antlers in the summer each year, male reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid-December. Female reindeer retain their antlers until after they give birth in the spring. Therefore, according to every historical rendition depicting Santa’s reindeer, every single one of them, from Rudolph to Blitzen … had to be a girl.

We should’ve known. Only women would be able to drag a fat man in a red velvet suit all around the world in one night and not get lost.

For some of us, preparation for the Blizzards of 2006 started on Halloween!

Once a year, Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) districts demonstrate to the various agencies they serve (American Red Cross, County Sheriff, etc.) that they can respond in a natural disaster and provide emergency communications. These tests are called Simulated Emergency Test (SET).

The ARES parent organization, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), takes these exercises very seriously with very clear guidelines. However, this does not mean we can’t have a little fun. ARES District 24’s Operation and Training Officer, Randy Reynard (NQØR) planned this year’s SET with the following news flashes:

OPERATION “GREAT PUMPKIN”
ARES District 24 Simulated Emergency Test

SIMULATION * SIMULATION * SIMULATION

NWS Statement 29 October 2006, 2000 MST

WINTER STORM WATCH

A strong storm is forming over the Sierra Nevada region and is expected to move into the Rocky Mountain Region over the next two days. This storm has the potential for heavy rain, icing conditions and heavy snow.

A winter storm watch will go into effect at 1201 AM MST 30 October.

Persons with agricultural, public safety, utility and transportation interests should make preparations for unusually heavy winter conditions starting sometime Tuesday.

SIMULATION * SIMULATION * SIMULATION

No action should be taken by D-24 personnel unless there is an imminent danger to lives or property that is not part of this exercise.

The exercise will be monitored by ARES D-24 Operations.

Randy Reynard, NQØR
ARES CO D-24 AEC
Operations and Training Officer

On October 31st, Randy, acting as an agent of the Douglas County Sheriff Office (DCSO), activated ARES District 24. In the scenario, with the impending storm, gangs of vagabonds were roaming the neighborhoods within Douglas County, looting or begging for scraps of food. The DCSO also requested hourly weather reports.

In reality, the gangs of vagabonds roaming the neighborhoods were the trick-or-treaters taking part in the Halloween festivities. Most of us participated from the comfort of our homes. Some reports were very imaginative, with a house catching fire, helping a pregnant lady give birth, and 18-foot snowdrifts blocking the neighborhoods.

18 foot drifts? Almost prophetic with the blizzards Colorado suffered in the end of 2006!

Let’s fast forward to five days before Christmas.

I subscribe to a number of weather alert services (in my attempt to be proactive as the Emergency Coordinator of ARES District D-24). As the first blizzard was moving towards Colorado, my pager and e-mail account inbox were filling up. It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out that we could be in for a time of it.

As I was pulling into work on December 20th, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office called my cell phone. The Point of Contact (POC) for the DCSO asked me to be ready to activate ARES D-24 to staff at least one or two Red Cross Shelters and the DCSO Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Throughout 2006 D-24 has been training and training for such a call. One part of me hoped we would never have to use our skills, the other part of me wanted to see how well we would do.

Taking the call, I now became the Mission Coordinator (MC) and I either had to start planning for the activation or look for someone else in D-24 to take the assignment. I decided to plan for the activation. I sent out a “heads up” page to all the members of D24, asking for a preliminary availability. As responses started to trickle in, the DCSO called me around 10 AM for an activation: one radio person at the DCSO EOC and one radio person possibly at a Red Cross Shelter, maybe at the Douglas County High School. Both assignments were in Castle Rock.

As the weather rapidly got worse, my office released us early. As I headed towards Castle Rock, I had at least one ARES operator monitor our primary activation frequency (Eric Freund, KØEWF) and record any D24 member checking in and have them wait for assignments. I had another D24 member (Perry Lundquest, W6AUN) heading toward the DCSO EOC. I originally planned to be at the DCSO EOC, but plans quickly changed.

As I was racing towards Castle Rock, traffic already started to back up around the Lincoln exit. As I got closer to Surrey Ridge, I saw the bottleneck. In the center lane was a stalled UPS semi-tractor trailer. The rig could not get any traction and the driver was putting on chains. Other truck drivers were taking this as an omen to pull over and apply their chains. These big rigs making their way over to the shoulder only added to the already increasing traffic problem.

As I got past the UPS truck, I received another call from the DCSO. The first Red Cross Shelter would be set up at Kirk Hall in the Douglas County Fair Grounds. The DCSO wanted a faculty as far South of town as possible for stranded motorists south of Castle Rock. I looked at what D24 members who were available and close to the southern part of Castle Rock.

I was the only one close. I figured I could multi-task, provide communications for the Shelter and still be the MC for the activation. I quickly went home and changed into my self-proclaimed ARES uniform: hiking pants, boots, ARES shirt with sweatshirt, and thermal underwear. My go-kit was already in the truck.

I got to the Fairgrounds, but finding Kirk Hall was challenging. It was not easy to get to, as the snow covered up all signs and the road access was completely smothered by snow. So I shrugged my shoulders, put the truck in 4-wheel drive and made my own tracks. I noticed the Red Cross Emergency trailer parked next to Kirk Hall, but I did not see anyone around. The building was open. I went in and scared the willies out of a Fairgrounds employee. Once he got his wits about him and I identified who I was and why I was there, I selected a spot for my radio operations and set up my stuff.

Perry (W6AUN) finally got to the DCSO EOC and reported that the DCSO requested a second shelter to be set up at Chaparral High School. I checked with Erik (KØEWF) on who was available for assignment near Parker. Mark Kelly (WØGO) was available. I mentioned to Mark that he could be at Chaparral over night as the storm progressed. Eric volunteered to join Mark and the two of them could tag team the assignment.

I had Eric transfer net control to Perry (who now had help from the infamous Randy – NQØR). By now it was 3 PM and we were getting rumors from DCSO that I-25 would be closed from Lincoln to Colorado Springs. Donita (KCØSWX) called in for limited assignment (she could help out from her home, but could not deploy yet). I had Donita start calling up members for second and third shift assignments at the DCSO EOC, Red Cross Shelters or as Net Control.

As I did my first radio check with net control, Douglas County Search and Rescue (DCSAR) showed up with the Red Cross (RC) volunteers (about an hour after I got there). One of the DCSAR volunteers looked at me and asked, “How’d you get here?”

“Big blue pickup truck out front,” I answered.

“Really?” he replied.

“Well yeah, it has four wheel drive and a pretty high clearance.” I said.

“He probably knows how to drive in this stuff,” quipped another DCSAR volunteer.

“Shaddup.” said the first DCSAR volunteer.

Joyce, the Red Cross volunteer, smiled at me and said in a stage whisper, “We have been stuck and needed help digging out. I did not realize a HUMVEE could get stuck so easily.”

As the evening progressed, we had a few folks trickle in. The DCSO EOC reported that I-25 was now closed from Lincoln to the New Mexico border. Most of our guests were folks that had to be rescued from US 83 (Parker Road south of Franktown) and County Road 105 (South of Larkspur). The travelers along these routes figured that these roads were not closed down and should be okay to drive on. One of the DCSO Deputies said this storm already had the shades of the storm in 1997, with travelers getting stranded.

Made you wonder where Santa was at with his lady reindeer, except we were four days from his big trip.

Donita was pretty busy getting our relief shifts. My relief (Carl Schultz – KB9UNG) hiked in from his house a half mile away. He looked like an Eskimo in fatigues. Randy and Perry got their relief from a father and son team (Mikey – KBØVJY and Daeron – KCØCNS). Perry and his trusty Isuzu Rodeo made it ok to his home in Highlands Ranch. He mentioned that it was really spooky being the only one on the Interstate. Randy, on the other hand, was not so lucky as he and his mini-van continued to get stuck in the snow on his way to the Founders subdivision in Castle Rock.

My trip home was uneventful, after all, according to DCSAR I know how to drive in this stuff. However, during the evening hours I found out that Jeannie and Allie were out in this fun stuff and had gotten stuck.

During the Christmas break Allie agreed to watch a friend’s dog in the Meadows (another Castle Rock subdivision). Both must have thought they were female reindeers in a previous life or figured the trusted Ford Explorer could go anywhere (a true statement most of the time). But without a fat man for traction to drag around in the snow, they got stuck in the cul-de-sac where the dog under Allie’s care lives. Some of the neighbors helped the dynamic duo dig out, but in the process, Allie’s cell phone fell out of her coat pocket into the snow. She was not aware of this until Jeannie and Allie got home. She was fairly bummed.

As morning came, I jumped back into the blue truck and raced back to Kirk Hall to relieve Carl. During the night, twenty-nine guests and one horse found their way to the shelter. At Chaparral, seventy-five guests took up the Red Cross invitation. However, the snow stopped the third shift relief staff from relieving the DCSO and Chaparral High School teams.

Donita’s availability upgraded to full-time status and Sue Walentosky (who never made it to Castle Rock, so stayed at Donita’s) started a three hour process of digging out and heading towards the Chaparral Red Cross Shelter. With about twenty minutes of digging to do, one of the ARES members, in trying to be chivalrous, suggested over the radio, that perhaps Sue and Donita should review their “options”. I sat at Kirk Hall just shaking my head and then heard Donita’s response: “Oh no, after all of this work, we will be there.” Within 30 minutes of this broadcast, Donita and Sue relived Eric and Mark, along with Perry.

Another member, Jim, used his snow blower to clear out a path in his 50-foot drive way in Parker, and relived Mikey and Daeron.

At about 5 PM on the 21st the DCSO thanked us for our assistance, as they shut down their two Red Cross Shelters and deactivated the EOC.

On the evening of the 22nd, Allie and I took the blue truck to the Meadows to check on her friend’s dog. Both she and Jeannie were there on the 21st, checking on the dog and looking for Allie’s cell phone. The dog was okay, if a little lonely. Jeannie and Allie’s search turned up no cell phone. So in one more attempt, we looked around, calling the number to see if we could hear it.

I did not realize that her tone from my phone was Frosty the Snowman. I was hearing it, but thought the music was coming from one of the Christmas displays. Then Allie heard it. She asks me if I was calling her phone and I said I was.

“Play it again!” she asked.

And then her continence was like that of a coyote stalking a mouse in the snow. Her head cocked to one side. Then deep in the snow, near the neighbors shoveled out driveway, she saw the light of her cell phone. She dug furiously and got close to the pavement, only to see that her cell phone was encased in ice. Out came my trusty pocket knife (a leatherman), and using the blade, I chipped the phone out of the ice. The phone was in good condition with just one scratch on the case.

On the second blizzard of 2006, once again the DCSO activated D24. This time, I asked one of the Assistant Emergency Coordinators, Frank (ABØWV), to be the Mission Coordinator (Melanie carpooled with me and could not leave work early). Frank ramped up the activation for the first wave of assignments. He took a lesson from the previous week by having Donita make the calls for the second and third relief shifts. Donita also took a page from the logistics book and asked Robert (KCØUBD) to provide four wheel drive taxi service for those members who could help, but could not get out. As he delivered Dirk (N2PDQ) to the DCSO EOC, the DCSO deactivated D24, as it seemed more travelers were prepared for this storm and did not need to be rescued. That is, most people stayed home. So must have Santa, as we had no reports of rescuing him or his female reindeer buddies in this weather.

Having back-to-back blizzards was very taxing, but all of us were happy to be able to help out.

Did our training pay off? I think so. The following week at the ARES D-24 Face-to-Face meeting a representative of the DCSO stopped by to convey Sheriff Weaver’s gratitude and appreciation.

Operation Tornado Alley

On July 22, 2006 we hosted a full scale Citizen Corps tornado exercise for the North Central Region.  The exercise included participation from the Arapahoe County CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), Arapahoe, Douglas and Elbert County ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) and the Civil Air Patrol.  The exercise was held in east Aurora at the Murphy Creek subdivision.

Operation Tornado Alley

Operation Tornado Alley

The exercise was covered by Aurora’s KACT television:

Colorado’s Fulford Cave

The weekend of June 16, 2006 a number of us traveled to the Fulford area in Eagle County for a trip to Fulford Cave.  On that trip we met Clay Evans, the outdoor editor for the Boulder Daily Camera and ended up visiting the alpine cave together with him.  Not long after we discovered that he documented the trip into an article and we played a prominent role in the story.  It turns out that conversations with newsmen are not off record.  Everything is fair game and on the record, although often paraphrased from the reporter’s memory.  What follows is Clay’s published article about the visit to Colorado’s Fulford Cave.

Down there in darkness
Fulford is a fun, fascinating intro to Colorado caving
By Clay Evans, Get Out Editor
June 23, 2006

When we — me, my stepson, Dane Campbell, and his friend Alex Tennant of Niwot — arrived at Fulford Cave Campground Friday evening, we made quick work of setting camp so we could make the steep, three-quarter-mile slog up the aspen-covered slopes and descend into Fulford Cave for a taste of what was to come the next day.

Day and night lose their meaning in a cave, where it’s always pitch-black. And no matter what the temperature is outside, the inside of Fulford remains a constant, chilly, damp 45 degrees or so.

We relished our too-brief hour inside the cave. The boys had never been to a large, undeveloped cave, and I hadn’t been to Fulford since the mid-1980s. Climbing down the “culvert” entrance — dug out by a miner many years ago, this corrugated pipe and welded ladder is the safest, easiest way to enter, though there are other entrances that require ropes — my body recalled the exhilaration of entering the cave for the first time, when I, too, was 12.

Caving is a unique “outdoor” experience. You spend hours in darkness and damp, using skills from navigation and orienteering to rock climbing and simple observation. And if you have a poor sense of direction — or even a pretty well-developed one — you’ll be astonished at how easy it is to get turned around when all you can see is what shows up within the circle of your headlamp.

When we emerged after a quick look at rooms near the entrance, the last orange light from sunset was fading in the west.

The next morning, following breakfast, we met up with a group from the Front Range Grotto caving club at the entrance: Rick Speaect , 42, of Aurora; his daughter, Talon, 13; Jenn Scott, 33, of Aurora; Max Khaytsus , 36, of Aurora; and Wendy Steward , 24, of Arvada.

To my surprise, I’d been in Fulford more than anyone else in the group — probably 10 times since that first Boy Scout trip. But I had forgotten many of the cave’s secrets, and it was nice to have four certified cave rescuers — Speaect, Talon, Scott and Khaytsus — along.

Maps of Fulford are available, and generally accurate, though distances can be somewhat off. It’s a popular cave, but it’s mind-blowing to see people heading up for a lark, dressed in flip-flops and shorts, without helmets and sometimes armed with no more light than a cigarette lighter. It’s always fun to do a “blackout” by having everyone turn off their lights, but it’s also unnerving to think about what would happen if you lost your light sources. Fulford is dark, full of deep pits and slippery, and there’s no way you could find your way out.

Serious cavers (“spelunker” is for amateurs; Khaytsus says a “spelunker is someone with a beer in one hand, a lighter in the other, and ‘spelunk’ is the sound they make when they fall”) advise turning around every 10 or 20 feet to study where you’ve just been, for later reference. You really don’t want to get lost.

Bottom line: Caves are serious business. You need, at minimum, a helmet and at least three sources of light, and ropes are advised in case of emergency (or cool, hard-to-reach features).

We headed in past a spectacular ice pillar and skated across some ice patches, then dropped to a wet, steep shelf above the Lower Room. Our trio had stopped there the night before, realizing it would be tricky to get back up without equipment, so we were grateful to have some climbing gear provided by Speaect, which enabled us to go lower.

Once down, our group of eight poked in and out of various rooms and crevices; I didn’t find Gollum, but discovered a pack rat nest and marveled that creatures could live in such a hostile (dark!) environment.

Once up and out of the Lower Room — the kids had an interesting scramble, with help from ropes, webbing and encouraging adults — we found the JFK Room. This room often eluded us when we were teenagers; in Fulford, or any cave, you really have to keep your eyes peeled to find some passages.

The JFK Room narrows out at each end, but if you’re willing to squeeze into the smaller passages, there are some relatively pristine formations made of what, in Fulford terms, is called “Moon Milk” — a whitewash-like mineral coating.

We proceeded through what’s known as The Big Meander, a room with a small “canyon” through which you can walk, then headed up to the Devil’s Washboard, a craggy, cramped tube that drops you to Fulford’s always-running stream. (The stream is something of an enigma; dye-tracing the water, which emerges at a beaver pond near the campground, has led some cavers to believe that many more undiscovered passages exist in the cave.)

From there, we went in search of the biggest room, the Breakdown Room. But we missed the very subtle entrance and headed instead back along the stream toward the Register Room. Here the climbing got more sketchy, and the younger cavers, led by self-described “mother hen” Scott (thanks, Jenn!), decided to retrace their steps and see the sun again. By then we’d been underground for more than three hours.

Speaect, Steward and I went on and found — led by other cavers’ lights above — the twisty, tight climb up into the Breakdown Room. Once inside, we tried to find a “short cut” exit back to the entrance room that Speaect remembered from his only other Fulford expedition. But first we explored the Breakdown Room — its sloping floor is covered with enormous slabs of granite that (yikes!) dropped at some point from high above — and the much more gentle Moonmilk Corridor, through which you can actually walk standing up.

We wanted to continue on to the Cathedral, the Attic and other rooms, but didn’t want to make the others wait, so we started our search for the escape hatch Speaect remembered as a tight squeeze leading to an 8- to 10-foot drop near the culvert entrance.

I volunteered to check out three possibilities. The first ended in a long, narrow, down-sloping tube, the end of which I could not see. Without knowing what was down there — the feature is called the Hidden Pit on the map — I decided I didn’t want to have to climb back out.

The next hole actually triggered my high-threshold claustrophobia. There’s nothing quite like being crammed in a rocky hole and realizing you’re going to have to back out like a badger.

The third hole was oh-so-close. We could see a way to get down, but it was slippery and sloping, and required a 15-foot shinny down a pole someone had placed near the entry room. We could have done it, but rather than risk a 25-foot tumble, we turned around and retraced our steps. Exploring is what caving is all about, but you have to be safe and smart

By this time, we’d been paying enough attention that we had our bearings, and the trip out was quick and uneventful. We saw on the way out that the Hidden Pit was, indeed, the exit Speaect remembered. Next time, we’ll be armed with our new knowledge.

Once outside, we were glad we turned around when we did. The rest of the group was just contemplating whether to go in after us after five hours of subterranean thrills.

We were all tired, happy and — as always at Fulford — absolutely covered with mud. The sun was high and warm, and my only regret was that we had to head back to Boulder that night. But now my 30-year-old memory has been jogged, and I can’t wait to go back … and go deeper still.

The full story originally appeared on the Boulder Daily Camera website at http://www.dailycamera.com/bdc/get_out/article/0,1713,BDC_8836_4792292,00.html.  The article is no longer there.