Communicate: Lessons from the Standard Mine incident

If you hear the fire siren at 2 a.m. …

by Mark Reaman

After a review of the town’s Emergency Management Plan spurred by the recent release of sediment at the Standard Mine cleanup project, the Crested Butte Town Council wants to make sure a few changes are made to ensure better communication with the general public.

The council on Monday indicated it wants to make sure if another incident happens, the town would be the first to be notified so that if a major spill occurs, the town can shut off its intake to the town reservoir and its drinking water. Council members want to look at a more clear delineation of communication protocol with a public information officer (PIO) and they want to look at ways to better inform citizens how they can be made aware of incidents through efforts like Reverse 911.

Town manager Todd Crossett gave an in-depth history of the town’s plan and how it coordinates with other local, state and federal agencies. Chief marshal Tom Martin outlined protocols used by various agencies in any emergency situation.

Crossett said there were various avenues of alerting citizens to situations, depending on the severity of the incident. The town can send out “e-alerts” to those who have registered for the email service.

The town also uses local media such as newspaper and radio outlets, along with social media. The siren on the top of the town fire hall would be blown for three to five minutes to make people aware of a developing situation such as a potential wildfire that might be cause for an evacuation.

“If the siren goes off at 2 in the morning, most people won’t go to the town website or check their email—they’ll call their friends and go to Facebook,” said councilman Chris Ladoulis.

“There is the capability to use Reverse 911 calls for certain segments of the county or even specific areas of the town in emergency situations,” said Martin. “There are several mechanisms we utilize.”

“We might send out an e-alert if a car accident closed Highway 135 for a while and use Reverse 911 in life-safety issues,” said Crossett.

“It is good if everyone is registered for that,” added Martin.

Reverse 911 is automatic if you have a land line but if you rely on a cell phone, you must register at the Gunnison County website.

“We need to make it more clear to the public how they can be in the loop and get information during such situations,” said Crossett.

The idea of having a single source of information, through a public information officer, was also discussed. “It is important to coordinate with accurate information,” said Crossett.

Crossett said during the Standard Mine release, he as the town manager would normally be the information spokesperson. But town water department staff felt at the time the incident posed no threat to public health and safety (and it didn’t), so a day was lost between the time of the incident and when Crossett found out about it. Therefore, an official press statement was not immediately released. Crossett said that was one of the lessons of the recent incident that would be corrected in the future.

“In the majority of cases, situations will be more of a ‘concern’ than one of imminent danger,” said councilman Chris Ladoulis, who has repeatedly expressed disappointment with how the incident was handled. “The public information aspect with the Standard Mine release was a failure. Should another incident occur, how do we better communicate? I’d want a good plan on how to better communicate with the public.”

“There needs to be an acknowledgment from the agencies (such as the EPA) for the need for information to get to the town, even if it is seemingly trivial,” added councilman Skip Berkshire. “We need to be notified before anyone else because we can actually do something given the circumstances.”

“The grapevine moved at Internet speed and we need to move just as fast,” said Ladoulis.

“The council feels the need to communicate with the citizens in such cases,” said mayor Aaron Huckstep. “With the Standard Mine incident, it was never made clear who the PIO was. In the future that needs to be clear. The buck stops with the mayor, whoever is in that role.”

“We understand that the public will likely reach out to the mayor first,” said Crossett.

“The media like the Denver Post in this case will try to divide and conquer,” said town public works director Rodney Due. “They will call the mayor, then the town manager, then me. One person needs to speak for us all. If you get a call, direct them to the PIO. The state and the feds also saw the gaps and now that they are done with the project for the season, they will be discussing how to better deal with such incidents this winter.”

“It is important for the citizens to know what we are doing—for example, if we shut off the water intake from Coal Creek,” said councilman Jim Schmidt. “Secondly, it is just as important for people to know the sky isn’t falling as it is for them to know it is falling. Third, if the fire siren goes off, people need to know what to do and where to find information.”

“Keep in mind that the media turned it up because the Animas River situation was recent,” said Due. “There was no threat to public health with this incident.”

“We were all sensitive to that because of the Animas,” said Ladoulis.

“The Standard Mine situation was an opportunity to improve communication,” concluded Crossett, who intends to work with staff to implement an improved process in future cases.

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