Colo. academy helps governmental agencies manage disasters

By Matt Hildner
The Pueblo Chieftain
Copyright 2007 The Pueblo Chieftain 
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News

ALAMOSA, Colo. — There was no natural disaster in Alamosa over the weekend, although the more than 700 firefighters and emergency personnel that poured into town may have suggested otherwise.

They were on hand for the opening of the Colorado Wildland Fire & Incident Management Academy. Now in its 14th year, the academy has become a starting point for many firefighters looking to get the training to battle wildland fire.

As the second half of the academy's name suggests, it's also a training ground to help federal, state and local agencies manage disasters.

For many, that means getting training in a protocol known as the incident management system.

Agencies responding to wildfires in California originally developed the system as a way to coordinate the array of jurisdictions involved in battling the flames and providing relief.

Since then, the system has become the standard protocol for handling disasters, whether they are floods, blizzards, fires or hurricanes.

It was the system used to manage events as diverse as the Fountain Creek flood, the Holly tornado and the blizzard that struck the southeastern part of the state in January. "This is the vehicle that everybody utilizes," said Marc Mullenix, who led the Type II incident team that managed the Mason Gulch Fire near Wetmore in 2005. "This is the standard with which we do business."

The academy, which runs through Friday, is even run using the protocol and Mullinix serves as the incident commander for the week's worth of courses.

Now, in the state of Colorado, whenever there is a state emergency declaration an incident management team can be called in to manage the event and coordinate the local response.

Likewise, there are federal incident management teams that come in for federal declarations.

When the academy held its first session in Leadville, the majority of attendees came from federal agencies. This year nearly two-thirds of the enrollment came from fire departments and federal agencies.

Now, however, just less than 20 percent of the students come from state, county and municipal agencies.

Part of the reason for that, said Mullenix, is that the federal government expects local agencies to do more and has been less likely to hand out funds to deal with disasters.

For local governments, that means they need to develop more capacity to deal with disasters. "You have to mobilize, train, and develop expertise locally," Mullenix said.

Colorado, however, was quicker to adjust to that trend because it is not as heavily composed of federal land as some other western states and has therefore had a mix of agencies responding to many of its larger events.

Chad Ray, a regional field manager with the Department of Local Affairs, said the academy also has given the state a boost in learning the system.

"That's what it's about — building capacity within the state of Colorado," he said.

For many, however, the academy is still their ticket to getting on the front line of battling a forest fire.

Jim Busse, of South Park, started his first day of the academy Saturday in the class that every newcomer who wants to fight a wildland fire must take — basic firefighting and wildland fire behavior.

Busse lived near Los Alamos, N.M., in 2000 when a controlled burn escalated into the Cerro Grande fire that scorched 48,000 acres and forced him and nearly 18,000 others to evacuate.

Now Busse works for the South Park Fire Protection District. By getting his certification, he can fight wildland fires and he'll be authorized to be on scene when fires flare up.

"If you get a spot fire where you get there early and stomp on it, you can save the whole establishment," he said.

Mike Ortega, who teaches business classes at Canon City High School, also is enrolled in the class. He came because he wants to help out the Tallahassee Volunteer Fire Protection District, where his friend is chief. "It might turn into a summer job for me now," he said.

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