By Avery Martinez
Staff from the Archuleta County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) made a presentation on May 17 covering fire safety, search and rescue, survival suggestions and disaster mistakes.
Mike Le Roux, the Archuleta County director of emergency operations, led the presentation on a wide variety of community safety, emergency and fire issues.
As the director of emergency operations, Le Roux and his team deal with search and rescue, disaster organization and getting information to the public in the event of a disaster or emergency.
Le Roux introduced his team as being comprised of Matthew Fine, Christina Kraetsch and himself.
Information on the OEM, disaster mistakes, search and rescue myths and survival tips are listed below.
Who is the OEM?
“You might have seen our vehicles around … sometimes we’re referred to as EMS, emergency management services, and we’re not part of EMS medical,” Le Roux said.
Sitting under the umbrella of the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) the OEM is one of six departments within the ACSO.
“Within our [department] there are three permanent staff,” Le Roux said, adding, “And then we supplement that crew in the summer.”
Emergency management is a broad term, Le Roux explained, and the OEM helps mainly with coordinating in the event of an emergency.
“We augment and support the actual incident that is happening,” said Le Roux.
What that means, according to Le Roux, is coordinating services such as fire crews, law enforcement officers or airplanes to where they are needed most in case of a major emergency.
“I like to think of it more as consequence management,” he said.
Le Roux mentioned that, often, the role of OEM is to deal with the consequences of whatever may be happening.
“We’re not getting in the weeds, we’re trying to deal with the impact of long-term implications from that disaster and event,” said Le Roux.
Based out of Nick’s Hangar, the OEM helps to write emergency management plans, he described.
Not all emergencies are fires or floods, according to Le Roux, explaining that Mineral County declared an emergency due to the lack of snow and the impact of less tourism to the area.
“And they’re now able to tap into a small business loan to supplement the loss of income they had,” Le Roux said.
Le Roux explained that while that may not be an emergency the way we think of a fire or an incident such as the Little Sand Fire, the OEM helps with the consequences, whatever they may be.
“The aim is to reduce the harmful effects of all hazards, including the disasters, through hardworking community partnerships,” Le Roux said in stating the mission statement of the OEM.
He explained that when a disaster happens, it affects the whole community and, further, the entire community was needed to recover from a disaster.
“That’s up to you, that’s up to the people, the more we as a community get together … the better we are going to be in the long term,” Le Roux said.
The geographical area for the OEM covers all of Archuleta County, as well as Mineral and Hinsdale counties on this side of the divide, explained Le Roux.
Nearly 2,000 square miles are covered by the OEM with help from federal partners, Le Roux explained.
Search and rescue
Upper San Juan Search and Rescue (USJSAR) is a volunteer group of search and rescue personnel who are not funded by, but overseen by, the ACSO.
In Colorado, according to Le Roux, all sheriff’s offices must provide a search and rescue organization.
The nonprofit USJSAR is comprised of three members, all volunteers, who are willing to brave the wilderness to help those in need, Le Roux explained.
Le Roux noted that the ACSO is the only entity that can activate search and rescue.
Mistakes and misunderstandings
Mainly, according to Le Roux, a major cause of problems is the altitude of Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County, and the weather.
Further, Le Roux explained that though they were volunteers, there was not a cost associated with the search and rescue teams.
A brochure given out by Le Roux about search and rescue explains some tips on what to take on hikes, search and rescue information and items that should be included in safety kits. The brochure also describes an increase in search and rescue operations since 2011 due to unprepared hikers, anglers and hunters.
“There is no charge unless an ambulance or helicopter evacuation is called. Mission costs are often in the thousands of dollars,” the brochure reads.
“Search and rescue is an absolutely free service to the population — it doesn’t matter what situation anybody has gotten themselves into,” said Le Roux.
Le Roux explained that if the individual needing search and rescue is transfered to a “another provider,” such as a helicopter or ambulance, that is the point where charges would be applied.
“We don’t see any of that … we don’t see a cent from that, and we don’t expect to,” Le Roux said.
Le Roux explained that oftentimes there is confusion over whether search and rescue is a free service or not.
People often decide not to contact search and rescue until it is late in the evening, Le Roux explained, because they are afraid to pay for a service.
By purchasing a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card, Le Roux explained, you help reimburse search and rescue team members who may experience costs in performing search and rescue duties. The card only costs $3 for one year or $12 or five years.
Search and rescue would have a better time of finding someone with six hours of daylight than at night, Le Roux noted.
“Don’t leave it to yourself,” said Le Roux.
“The more you can advocate it’s a free service, call early and call often, with as much information as possible, that really helps our responders,” Le Roux said.
Further, if information given to search and rescue is not clear or not specific, there is less of a chance of search and rescue being called out at night, Le Roux explained.
“That puts everybody at risk, that puts our responders at risk. It’s not our rescue, it’s a problem that you have gotten yourself into, and we will come help you if it is safe for everybody,” Le Roux said.
However, if you call saying that you are 2 miles up this trail, lost near this rock, and someone is in a life or death situation, search and rescue would mobilize at night to come help, Le Roux explained.
Le Roux described an incident months before in which two people found themselves lost on the Four Mile Falls trail and had no idea where they were. By talking to search and rescue over the phone, they were able to build a fire, stay out in the woods and by 10 the next morning, they were picked up and out of the area.
In that particular case, Le Roux explained, the Civil Air Patrol and several other tools allowed them to “ping” their cellphones to find a general area of where they were.
Le Roux noted that when they were found, they were 50 feet from where the ping had placed them.
Le Roux explained that once you make a call to search and rescue, you need to stay put.
If the person moves from the location that search and rescue knew, it doesn’t help anybody, Le Roux mentioned.
Le Roux continued to explain that the best way to act once contacting search and rescue is to stay put; and call early, and call often.
Suggestions about wilderness preparedness included finding local maps and trails. Several of the places listed included VisitPagosaSprings.com, PagosaTrails.net and the U.S. Forest Service’s Pagosa Ranger District.
Emergency information outlets
Le Roux listed several ways equally useful for both locals and visitors to the area.
Le Roux explained that now there are several outlets the OEM and other agencies use to get information out.
Those that Le Roux highlighted for information were: 911, the ACSO Facebook page, KWUF, The Pagosa Springs SUN, the Archuleta County website, the OEM’s Twitter account, the Pagosa Ranger District and citizen alert at 888-777.
According to Le Roux, the 888-777 citizens alert is for immediate information on emergencies within Archuleta County. Both citizens and visitors can sign up for the service to receive up-to-the-minute information on whatever is going on in Archuleta County.
A brochure given out by the OEM listed “10 Essentials” that any person should have when headed out on any trail:
1) A communication device (such as a mobile phone).
2) A navigation device (GPS, map or a compass).
3) Sun protection (sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat).
4) Insulation (meaning extra clothing or dressing in layers).
5) Illumination (headlamps, flashlights and batteries).
6) First-aid supplies that are specific to the person carrying the first-aid kit’s needs.
7) A multi-tool and/or knife.
8) Food (always take more than you think you need).
9) Water (and if possible, a way to get more).
10) Emergency shelter (such as a rope and space blanket).
The brochure also mentions bringing insect repellent.
The brochure also suggests taking along a safety kit that should include a poncho, space blanket, help signal whistles and mirrors, light, waterproof fire starter, a compass, water purification tablets and a basic first aid kit.
Phone numbers and contact information for the OEM and USJSAR are listed below:
• OEM — 731-4799.
• USJSAR — 264-0517.
To find out more tips, information and alerts for the Archuleta County region, visit the USJSAR website at www.usjsar.org, or the OEM page on the Archuleta County website.
By Avery Martinez