Weathering a crisis: How Grand County prepares for, and deals with, winter weather emergencies
“It is our responsibility to be the bad-day guys,” said Christian Hornbaker, Grand County emergency manager. “Our daily process is to think of what happens if… It is our responsibility to be prepared and make sure others are prepared, as well.”
For Hornbaker and the rest of the senior leadership of Grand County’s first-responder community, the decision to declare a winter weather emergency depends on multiple factors with different levels of response being implemented depending on those factors.
The primary factor that could lead to a winter emergency declaration would be the closure of all four major highways out of Grand County, which includes U.S. Highway 40 over Berthoud Pass, U.S. Highway 34 over Rabbit Ears Pass, Highway 125 over Willow Creek Pass and Highway 9 to Summit County.
But Hornbaker said that such circumstances are very rare.
Colorado’s north-central mountains were inundated in January 2017 with heavy snow, closing three out of four of the main highways, though southbound Highway 9 towards Silverthorne remained open.
Other factors that could necessitate preemptive action from first responders, but would not necessarily constitute an “emergency,” include lengthy closures of Berthoud Pass — typically any closure lasting more than four hours.
The length of road closures is a major area of concern for emergency planners.
If all four main roads in Grand County remained closed longer than 48 to 72 hours, the likelihood of a formal emergency being declared is much higher, as Hornbaker explained.
“On average, most grocery stores throughout the state and nation have food supplies for up to three days, so that is the 72-hour threshold,” Hornbaker said.
The official decision to declare a winter weather emergency passes through a series of agencies and individuals before a final determination is made, as Hornbaker explained the process.
“If all four roads are closed and we know they will be closed for a prolonged time, we start working with the sheriff’s office, CDOT, Grand County Road and Bridge, EMS and some of the fire stations, depending on how crazy things are for them,” he said. “We work as a group and figure out if an emergency needs to be declared. We will notify the county manager and then he would request that an emergency be declared by the county commissioners.”
Hornbaker noted that one of the biggest issues surrounding emergency declarations relates to covering costs associated with emergency responses.
To be able to obtain funding assistance after an emergency, from either the state or federal agencies, a formal emergency declaration must be made.
If a major winter storm did necessitate an emergency declaration, the response would depend on the estimated time period for regional road closures and the number of individuals in the county.
“If we have a really bad day on a big weekend and people are not able to get into hotels or motels, we would activate and work with other agencies to provide emergency shelter,” Hornbaker said.
Hornbaker highlighted groups like the Red Cross and The Salvation Army as partners in such circumstances and said that the Red Cross has agreements with some large facilities in the area, such as local schools, to serve as emergency shelters in such times.
“In the event of an emergency that impacts the county, or even just a geographical segment of the county, we will send out Code Red notifications,” Hornbaker said. People can always sign up for the notifications at http://www.gcemergency.com.
While the snow — or lack thereof — hasn’t brought many hazardous impacts so far this year, it’s always best to be prepared and know what to do in case of a weather-related emergency.
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The Grand Lake Fire Protection District has abandoned a voter-approved effort to run its own EMS transports as the department and county officials re-evaluate how that service might be provided.