County establishes protocols in case of major emergencies

Cutting-edge document adopted by commissioners

If a major disaster like those that have recently struck China and Myanmar hit locally, Gunnison County has its emergency plan in place.



The Gunnison Board of County Commissioners signed and adopted a resolution on Tuesday, May 6, to establish protocol for government operations in the event of a disaster or emergency and to ensure that the county government will continue to work to provide for its citizens.
The resolution also outlines the succession of power if ranking members of government become incapacitated or unable to perform their function. It also details the phases of emergency management and the effects a declaration of emergency might have on government operation.
“This [resolution] is kind of the foundation for the county’s Emergency Operations Plan and it wouldn’t go smoothly, or maybe not at all, without having this document in place,” says Scott Morrill, the county’s emergency manager.
Already in place are two related resolutions: the first established an emergency management program for the county and with it the position of emergency services director; the second granted the authority to the county manager to execute contracts during an emergency.
“This would be an attachment to the Emergency Operations Plan. And we’ve been waiting to adopt the EOP until we got something like this in place so that we could make sure that those mesh and that the plan itself has clarity about operational procedures and an order of succession and things like that,” says Morrill.
The most recent resolution identifies the county manager, currently Matthew Birnie, as the only person with the authority to declare an emergency for the county, which can stand for a maximum of seven days before requiring the approval of the county commissioners to continue.
But immediately after declaring an emergency, the manager is required to begin attempts at convening a quorum of county commissioners “by any reasonable methods” within 24 hours, or as soon as possible. A quorum is two commissioners.
Defined as “a state, especially of need for help or relief, created by some unexpected event,” an emergency could be a flood, fire or pandemic flu that requires immediate action from the government.
An emergency declaration can start at the local level by “the principal executive officer of a political subdivision,” such as a mayor or city manager, and then, depending on the need for resources, be elevated through the county, state and federal levels as needed.
A request for assistance is passed up from the local government to the county, and so on, when “whatever is happening has exceeded our capacity to respond to it,” says Morrill.
But even if the county were to request assistance from the state or federal government, the authority to act stays with the county manager, or the acting incident commander.
“There are provisions in the constitution and the state statute that put the state and federal government in a support role. There are always going to be egos and people who think they should be in control, but legally that’s the way it should be,” says Morrill.
The document outlines a variety of impacts, including granting the county manager authority to move county personnel to duties that aid in the emergency response, “suspend or temporarily alter personnel rules,” increase the availability of money for contracts from $100,000 to $250,000, and delegate authority to the Incident Command.
The document also grants the “ability to request and authorize assistance from all appropriate entities and individuals, such as local elected officials and other communities.”
Another function of this resolution is to provide a chain of command should the person in charge be removed or become unable to perform the tasks required of the leadership role.
“The other thing that this does is remove the fear factor as far as what people need to do and what are the appropriate actions to take in an emergency situation, and kind of outline the succession of authority so you don’t have everybody jumping up and saying ‘I’m in charge,’” says Birnie
Although the threat of wildfire might be the most probable potential disaster in Gunnison County, the commissioners made sure not to limit the scope of the resolution based on probability.
“If you start talking about pandemic outbreaks that could last months or a year and folks are dropping like flies, we really wanted to have a deeper bench, as it were,” says Birnie. “We looked at a few templates around the state and there were a few stabs at it, but nothing that provided real clarity around these issues and dealing with a deep chain of command.”
As the county was planning to put together this document, Morrill attempted to glean information from what other county emergency managers had written, and found that there was no precedent for the resolution.
“I called a dozen other emergency managers and they all said they hadn’t done it yet, but that they’d love to see ours when we were done,” says Morrill. “It is kind of cutting-edge in how Emergency Operations Plans are going to be implemented.”

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