Monthly Archives: December 2011

2011 in Pictures

YIP 0402 Cox

Recovery of a patient at the graduation exercise for Littleton CERT . Photo by D. Cox.

YIP 0402 MK

Fire practice with Littleton CERT. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

YIP 0423 MK

Panoramic bridge over Castlewood Canyon. GPS training at the Castlewood Canyon State Park. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

No More Excuses in convert at Legacy Stadium.

No More Excuses play at the Legacy Stadium at Operation Snake Eyes. Photo by G. Freeman.

YIP 0423 JS

Shadow taking a break at the GPS training event at Castlewood Canyon State Park. Photo by J. Scott.

YIP 0721 Kienker

A caver rappels down the Register Room in Fulford Cave during the NSS 2011 Convention. Photo by M. Kienker.

YIP 0722 JS

The NSS Caver ice sculpture centerpiece at the NSS 2011 Convention. Photo by J. Scott.















rising from the grave

Zombie Apocalypse photo shoot for Mission Briefing. Photo by P. O’Neill.

YIP 1203 JS

Denver Paramedics taking part in the Denver Parade of Lights. This ambulance definitely has lights. Photo by J. Scott.

Ham News

Once again O.M.E.G.A. hosted an amateur radio class, Technician level.  The class had four potential students.  Due to various reasons, the night of the first class, instructors outnumbered the students by two to one.  George (WA9TCD) and I (KCØSWX) had one student.  At the end of class, we suggested that she bring her husband.

At the second class, we had two students.  It was a fun class.  We maintained a pace aimed more at the students than at the syllabus.

Towards the end of the class, our students had to miss a week due to travel.  In order to help them better prepare for their test, before they left town, we completed the material and did a review.  We postponed the practical exercise until after their return.

Prior to going out of town, our two students took their test at a ham fest.  Both students passed, one with a 100%.  WAY TO GO!

Our next class will be summer, 2012.  Keep an eye on O.M.E.G.A.’s training page if you are interested in taking part.

Packing the PPEs

A good friend of mine was fixing the attic fan in his home and as he climbed the ladder in the attic, he scratched his forehead on a crossbeam.  Crawling along, he picked up splinters in both hands and cut one hand replacing the fan belt.  On the way down the ladder, he missed the last two rungs and turned his ankle.

He knew the honeymoon was over when he limped into the kitchen and his wife took one look and said, “Are those your good pants?”

This was a similar reaction I got when I shared with my bride of 38 years (Jeannie Cook) that Aron Anderson from the All Hazards North Central Region had called asking for help to restock the gas masks and filters for the PPE’s.

“Who is Aron Anderson?” Jeannie asked.

“He is that nice guy who drops off the fire extinguishers for the CERT Classes”, I replied.

“Oh.  What is a PPE?” she asked back.

“A PPE is Personal Protection Equipment.  These bags are for Law Enforcement, Fire Fighters and Emergency Medical Services.  The filters and gas masks are rated for radiological, chemical, biological environments,” I answered.

“How many bags are we ‘packing’ and where are we doing this?”

“I am not sure, Aron said a bunch.  We will be doing this at the NCR warehouse, you know, where we get the fire extinguishers when Aron can’t bring them to Castle Rock and those manikins for the CERT exercises.”

“We are going to get kind of grimy and sweaty aren’t we?


“Don’t wear your good work clothes.”

Aron and I agreed on meeting on October 27 at 6 PM at the North Central Region’s warehouse.  I sent the request for volunteers to all of the O.M.E.G.A. members and with the lure of plenty of pizza and soda, I was able to get the Grahn Family (Melanie, John, Jaden and Trevor), Jeannie Cook, George Bartling, Gary Freeman and Donita Hilfinger.

As we entered the door, Aron informed us that we had about 1500 PPE bags.  From the corner of my eye, I could tell from the look from Jeannie that the honeymoon was over.  Plus I glanced down to my pants to make sure I did not have my good pants on.  I did not want to get into trouble twice that night.

But once we set up our assembly line, we rolled up our sleeves and went to work.  Gary made sure we had a constant supply of face masks and filters.  A team member stuffed a bag with a filter and moved the bag down the line.  Another member would stuff a mask in the bag and move the bag down the line.  Another member would zip up the bag and toss it to the person who would stack the bags on the pallet.

With Trevor offering encouragement from his stroller (this is about as much that a 14 month old could offer) and Jaden would do his part and carry/drag the bags to be stacked.  Not bad for a five year old.

Then the pizzas came!  I must admit, they tasted pretty good.  But we could not extend our break too long and we went back to stuffing the PPE bags.  We discovered that we were running short of the masks, so we stuffed the remainder of the bags with just the filters and placed them in a different location.

All in all, it took us little over two hours to stuff 1500 bags.  And we were glad to give Aron a helping hand.

Operation Night Track

Back in April we had our first opportunity to meet and work with Rampart Search and Rescue, based out of Adams County.  They did a good job at the exercise and in conversations later we thought it might be fun to hold a joint training.

No two response teams are alike in how they are structured, how they operate or how they train.  We’re similar in many ways and we perform like tasks, but at our most fundamental level we are all different and when it comes to training and becoming better, these underlying differences are key to evolving best practices and improving our skill sets.

And so a couple of months after Operation Snake Eyes we decided to hold a joint exercise and, to make it a little more challenging, we decided to do a night time simulation out in the wilderness.  As a departure from our traditional full scale disaster and mass casualty scenarios, this was going to be more of a search and rescue operation for people lost in the wilderness.  The scenario was fairly straight forward.  Three seniors went out for a hike in an urban wilderness interface park.  They were supposed to be back by noon.  When they did not show by 6 PM, their families became worried and called the police.  Through internal routing, the call went out to Rampart and O.M.E.GA.

Great.  We just needed an open space area that could pass for an overgrown wilderness.  Piece of cake.  We got a hold of Aurora Parks, Recreation and Open Space and asked if we could use the Sand Creek wilderness area on the Adams County/Arapahoe County boarder.  The answer was yes, but we still needed to file paperwork for an event permit.  We did that and everything seemed good, but at the last minute the answer came back as a no, due to eagles nesting in the area.  That almost derailed the whole exercise.

We pushed the date back and talked to Cherry Creek State Park about using their facility.  Once again we received an enthusiastic yes for an answer, but there was still paperwork involved.  And because this was going to be at a reservoir, we needed to receive approval from both Colorado State Parks and from the Army Corps of Engineers.  We started the process over, but this time we were approved.

The date had to be agreed upon by all parties and we settled on Saturday, September 24.  It was the day after Operation Mountain Guardian and we knew that a lot of us were going to be pretty tired coming into Operation Night Track.

The day of the exercise we set the scene.  It was an hour before sunset when Jennifer Scott and I arrived at the park.  Our biggest worry now was the weather, but the day turned out to be beautiful and the temperature at sunset was still hovering around 70ºF.  By midnight it was expected to drop into the high 50s and the only environmental protection participants would need would be a light jacket.

Rose Lynch, the NCR moulage artist, came out to meet us at the park, along with our role players, Carol Brodzinski and Jerry Drake.  Carol and Jerry are our “fall down artists” when it comes to injury simulation.  They are a fixture at almost all of our exercises, adding a healthy dose of realism to the injuries.  Our third victim was a 200 pound mannequin from the Disaster Management Institute.  We picked him up the night before, at the conclusion of Operation Mountain Guardian, and he needed to have all the blood and gore washed off him before we could moulage him again.  Rose expertly fixed up our three patients in a matter of minutes and headed out to enjoy her evening, leaving us with three “bodies” to place.

The actual story for the scenario remained the same — three senior citizens out for a hike, six hours late, and probably in trouble.  They went off trail for their hike and ran into problems.  Arthur, the mannequin, slipped on debris and fell, impaling himself on some old rusty rebar sticking out of the creek embankment.  Carol and Jerry knew that they could not move him, so Carol stayed with Arthur and Jerry went for help.  In his rush to find help, Jerry made it only a quarter mile before tripping and falling down a hill, resulting in a broken jaw and a broken leg.  Carol continued to wait as Jerry lay unconscious in the forest.  Her role also involved diabetes and after a lengthy period without her medication, Carol became disoriented and wandered off.  Arthur, unconscious and bleeding, died.

Park Ranger Grant Brown came out to look at our setup and chuckled at the scenario.  He had a late shift in the park and would remain in the park office, if we needed anything.

Shortly before sunset, two of O.M.E.G.A.’s members arrived.  David Cox and Eileen Flynn were going to manage the staging area and perform credentialing and demobilization tasks.  We left them with all of the equipment and lost person information.  Names and pictures, provided by worried families.  As Jennifer and I departed the trailhead lot, we saw vehicles from Rampart SAR beginning to roll in.  The hunt was on!

Jennifer and I served as the role players’ angels.  In the SAR world an angel is a controller dedicated to the safety of a single individual.  Because Carol and Jerry trusted us with their lives, we needed to provide a safety element for them to be alone in the woods, in the dark, waiting for a bunch of rescuers to come and find them, evaluate them, place them on backboards and take them to a pretend waiting ambulance at the trailhead.

The exercise was a small scale simulation, involving only twenty-three participants, although the permit allowed us to have a response of up to forty individuals.  The responders came from Rampart SAR, O.M.E.G.A. and a handful from Aurora and Arapahoe County CERT teams.

After the teams briefed, they ventured out with search dogs.  Rampart has a canine search team and even though there was little in the way of scent to follow, this was their first attempt at searching for the lost hikers.

As the search continued, the search strategy evolved.  Reliance on dogs was scaled back and people driven grid searches were implemented.  This was aided by exercise injects from fictional individuals hearing about the search on the news and calling in to tell about things that they saw in the park while visiting it earlier in the day.  The clues were designed to provide more information for the responders to retrace the path of the lost hikers without giving anything away.

Operation Night Track

Responders carry out one of the victims in the exercise at Cherry Creek State Park. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

Carol was found first.  She was scraped up and confused, unable to tell what happened, but her location gave the responders an opportunity to refocus their search.  Arthur was next to be found and having found him dead and impaled on a piece of rebar, the responders immediately thought the worst – there was a killer on the lose in the park.  That was never the intent in planning the exercise, but added caution never hurts (although it does add to the duration of a search).  Jerry was found last, moaning in the forest, unable to speak and unable to walk.  It was after 11 PM that he was finally brought back to the trailhead, ending the exercise.

Everyone was wiped, but it was a good simulation of what can happen.  No one was more than a quarter mile away from the trailhead, but the thick vegetation and the darkness (the moon was waning with only 11% of the disk illuminated) contributed greatly to the length of the search.  This is a great reminder that in the wilderness, after dark, all bets are off.

Operation Night Track accomplished the goals we had in mind when planning the exercise.  We wanted to bring together teams that did not have much experience with one another, integrate them and allow them to learn from each other.  The late night and the hard work were well worth the end results.  We are looking forward to further cooperation with Rampart Search and Rescue and hopefully another joint exercise come 2012.

Operation Mountain Guardian – the Illuminati

We are the Illuminati.

No, seriously, we are.  I read it on the internet.  It’s true.

On September 23 emergency planners in the Denver metropolitan area hosted Operation Mountain Guardian, a Mumbai-style terrorism attack, across the Front Range.  This was the largest exercise of its kind ever held in Colorado, involving some 3,000 participants and over one hundred agencies.

Being invited to participate in an event such as this is quite an honor.  It immediately spoke to the fact that O.M.E.G.A. is a trusted partner in the local community.  Of course not being invited to a closed door terrorism exercise is a sign of…  It turns out that closed doors automatically imply conspiracies.

Our website traffic is fairly consistent, but in September we noticed a significant spike that was steadily growing.  Perhaps ‘steadily’ is a misrepresentation.  The traffic was growing at logarithmic rates, ultimately resulting in hundreds of hits per hour, twenty-four hours per day.  This is when curiosity says that it’s time for some research.  Where is all this traffic coming from and why?  It’s not that we’re against receiving traffic.  We just want to know why we’ve become such a popular internet destination.

As it turns out, the traffic came to us from conspiracy websites, which talked about this mysterious Operation Mountain Guardian, and how the end of the world was near.  Professional conspirators made note of meteor activity, the Presidential visit, Congressional recess, mysterious tunnels beneath the Denver International Airport and military mobilization in foreign countries.  Predictions of the end of the world and the coming martial law dominated speculation about the nature of this exercise.  The government knew something and something big was about to happen.

And O.M.E.G.A. was embroiled in all of this because it was one of the few websites that provided any hints of the coming exercise.  Conspiracy buffs at Above Top Secret, Before It’s News, God-Like Productions, Zeta Talk, Tinfoil Palace, The Oil Age and Final Equinox made guesses and predictions about the coming apocalypse.  And even though O.M.E.G.A. makes a lot of information about itself available at our website and on Facebook, we were called a shadowy secret society, a puppet organization of secret masters, bent on bringing about a new world order.

We are the Illuminati.

On September 23 we ran some five hundred individuals across the Denver metropolitan area.  We allowed terrorists to shoot helpless victims.  We diverted police, fire and medical services when they approached those in need.

We are the Illuminati in a fictional exercise, helping train first responders to stand ready for any disaster that may come.  We are a secret society training for the unknown, to preserve infrastructure and save lives.  We are a shadowy organization preparing volunteer responders to be ready to help their families, friends and neighborhoods when the unexpected takes place.  And we are quickly and easily forgotten when the date marked in red on the conspiracy calendar passes by without anything happening.  It’s amazing how quickly the conspiracy theorists move on to a new theory of something being wrong in the world when the target date results in a disappointment.  The traffic coming to our website dropped at an even steeper rate than the one it climbed at.

O.M.E.G.A. did get one mention in a credible media source, the Huffington Post, in reference to Operation Mountain Guardian.  They just noted that a large scale terrorism exercise would be held in Denver in order to prepare first responders to deal with potential terrorism events.

Training is the best possible teacher.  We train so that we can be better.  We train because there are a million real threats in the world and pretending that none will ever harm us is little more than playing the lottery.  Eventually someone always “wins”.  We stand ready to help in disaster, a disaster that we hope never comes.

OMG Props

A burned body lays in the corridor of the Katrina Building following the terrorist attack. Photo by J. Scott.


An armed terrorist stands guard over a handful of hostages at the Lowry Campus in Operation Mountain Guardian. Photo by M. Khaytsus.


Operation Mountain Guardian at Lowry Campus

When the City of Denver asked us to help coordinate approximately four hundred role players for Operation Mountain Guardian, several thoughts went through my head.  “Wow, that is a lot!”, “Okay, we can do that.  Piece of cake.” and “Do we have enough resources to spread ourselves out for this project?”

After the first few meetings we discovered that we needed individuals at three of the main locations to help coordinate the role players and keep track of them while they were there.  Donita got assigned to Park Meadows, Gary to Smedley Elementary School and Max and I to Community College of Aurora, Lowry campus.

At the Lowry location we were asked to help out with coordinating and managing the building and props that would be used during the exercise in addition to the role players.  Many hours were spent sorting and preparing clothes and other donated goods for the ‘hotel’ scene that would be in play.  Many volunteers also spent several days cleaning the building that was to be used and staging the props to make it look like a real long stay hotel.

While on this assignment, we met volunteers that went out of their way to help us with these objectives and several new friendships were made.  At one point, we were offered a sum of money in exchange for the help we were providing.  While this offer was appreciated, we declined the offer.  O.M.E.G.A. does not charge for its services.  For us the bigger accomplishment was the relationships and the friendships being made with a new agency.

Having approximately 200 role players at our site alone, Max and I quickly realized that we’d need more help controlling all of the role players and keeping track of where they were to be at all times.  So I made lots of calls and sweet talked several of our members and others who help us on a regular basis and asked them to help with this huge task.

OMG Explosion

Explosions at the playing field leave behind many victims. Photo Courtesy of the Community College of Aurora.

When September 23 rolled around, we were armed with a dozen people dressed in purple, stationed in various places to make sure that everyone got to the right location, had food to eat and stayed warm in the chilly building.  We had two people that panicked when gunfire sounded near them and the realism set in and we had one person that got stung by a bee that resulted in an allergic reaction and needed to be transported off campus.  All three of these folks recovered and the purple squad of O.M.E.G.A. staff handled each case with ease and lack of panic.

All in all, the experience was good for several reasons.  We learned more about how to organize a huge exercise, how our local emergency services would respond in a terrorist attack and that there is more involved in planning for role players then just showing up and signing them in.

At the end of the day I found myself going over those first questions that I had after the initial meeting.  “Wow, that is a lot!”  Yes it was a lot, but we managed to make due at all the locations without many problems.  We brought in volunteers who have worked with us in the past to support this effort.  “Okay, we can do that.  Piece of cake.”  It was true, we could do it.  It was a bigger cake then just one piece, but we managed to get it done.  It was also one of the best cakes we enjoyed all year.  All the hard work was well worth the effort.  “Do we have enough resources to spread ourselves out for this project?”  Indeed we did!  Large scale situations such as this is the reason agencies create mutual aid agreements.  No one can tackle a large disaster on their own.  Building partnerships in advance is invaluable.

It was a great experience and I would gladly do it again if we are asked.


Aurora police officers cross the Lowry Campus after an explosion in the playing field. Many areas of the sprawling Lowry Campus were used in this terrorism exercise. Photo courtesy of the Community College of Aurora.

Operation Mountain Guardian at Park Meadows

Operation Mountain Guardian – Park Meadows Mall Ever wonder what would happen if a major incident occurred in the Denver Metro area?  Say, an organized terrorist attack at multiple locations around the area?  The good news, it appears that the local emergency managers have.

Operation Mountain Guardian, OMG, is the name that was given to the September, 2011 exercise.  I am sure other articles will provide the background and details of OMG.  This article will center on the activities at Park Meadows Mall.

Douglas County Office of Emergency Management was responsible for Park Meadows Mall.  O.M.E.G.A. was asked to help get the role players moulaged as well as assist with check in and check out.  We were asked to be on site at 3:30 AM.  This is a very early start to the day, but we were to be out of the mall by 10:00 AM.  Early start, early finish.  We had three volunteers on site for this task: Donita Hilfinger (O.M.E.G.A.), John Grahn (O.M.E.G.A.) and Kevin Bruer (Castle Pines CERT).  Upon arrival, we checked in and were directed to the moulage area.

The role players would be split into two groups: one to stay at Park Meadows Mall and one to head to Sky Ridge Hospital.  Rumor had it that Sky Ridge did not know how many “victims” were coming.  Finding the Douglas County Emergency Manager, we asked about sending a person on the bus to the hospital to keep track of the role players.  She agreed with this suggestion and Kevin volunteered.  Kevin and nineteen role players boarded the bus and headed to Sky Ridge Hospital.

The remaining role players were placed within the Mall.  A few role players were placed in the food court, which was the site of the suicide bomber.  Others were placed in the mall hallways.  One uninjured person was to hide behind the counter in J.C. Penney.  Upon the start of the event, there were explosions and gunfire.  Mall security began walking around and checking on the injured.  They even got the first aid kit for one woman.  What surprised me was that they walked around casual as can be without concern of the terrorists finding them.

When the SWAT teams arrived, they didn’t take it on face value that the guards were the good guys.  I thought that was pretty smart.  Upon getting the security guards checked out and patted down, they began asking questions and found out there were at least a couple terrorists in JC Penney with a female hostage.

SWAT does not extract the injured.  Their job was to secure the facility so that others could come in and get the injured out safely.  One of the role players had an injured arm.  It was extremely painful and he had a hard time moving the pain was so bad.  He continued to call out to the various SWAT teams to try to distract them.  We did let the controller know if he was being too much of a distraction, let us know and we’d reign him in.  The controller let him be.  An injured woman was asked to leave her jacket and backpack and crawl to the SWAT unit.  She was then escorted out.  Her backpack was later searched and determined to be safe and returned to her.  Another woman with severe injuries from bullet wounds was asked to roll toward the SWAT members since she could not crawl.  Her injuries were severe enough that she died while trying to roll to safety.

Those injured personnel that were in the food court where the suicide bomber detonated his device, taking seven officers with him, were allowed to go out to the medical area and warm up.  Laying on the stone floor gets very chilly.  The role players were asked to leave any bags or personal items in their vehicles.  Most did, but some did not.  One woman had left her bag behind.  The officers emptied it to make sure there were no explosives hidden inside.  One victim was shot in the leg and positioned behind one of the vendor carts near the stairs.  As a terrorist with a gun approached him, he did not call out.  The terrorist shot at the approaching officers and then ran off.  As SWAT approached, they realized that there was an injured person behind the vendor cart.  The same location where someone had been shooting at them.  The injured party was searched, questioned and then hand cuffed since the SWAT personnel were not sure if he was an innocent bystander or a terrorist.  Talk about wrong place at the wrong time!

There was also a group of observers from various areas that would follow the SWAT personnel from a distance and observe what was being done.

As the role players were escorted from the building, they were to check in with the medical area.  Unfortunately, not all role players checked in at the medical area.  I got a call from the emergency manager asking how many role players were still inside the building.  Letting her know that only two were still inside, she seemed concern, because only a handful had checked in at medical and there did not appear to be any role players roaming around.  I checked the credentialing area to see if they had signed out without going to medical.  Counting role players who had not checked out yet, I started to get a little concerned.  I was missing one somewhere.  I accounted for the two in the building, the nineteen on the bus at Sky Ridge, myself and John.  I was still short one.  It finally dawned on me that Kevin had said there were nineteen role players on the bus, not nineteen people.  The nineteen did not include Kevin.  Ha!  All role players were accounted for.  I left a message for the emergency manager.

Eventually, all the role players were escorted from the building.  A short while later, the bus returned from Sky Ridge Hospital.  It appears they were there longer than anticipated because one ‘patient’ was missing.  It appears that one of the role players had been sent to radiology and then set aside.  Finally, someone realized that he was with the group of role players and sent him back down to join the others.

It was a great exercise and I enjoyed being in the midst of it to see how the professionals work.  Given a chance to participate in such an exercise, I would suggest jumping at the chance.

An Overview of Operation Mountain Guardian

For over a year, I have heard about this humongous multi-jurisdiction exercise called Operation Mountain Guardian (sometimes also called Oh My God, also shortened to OMG!)  From time to time I would ask my friends and associates within law enforcement, fire departments and emergency medical services if they needed help (like do you need role players, actors, folks who can make coffee, etc.).  And basically got the same answer: “We think we have it covered, but we will let you know.”

Then in the first week of August, I got a call from Carolyn Bluhm (Emergency Management Coordinator, Community Relations Specialist, City and County of Denver Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security).  She told me she just got off the phone with Lieutenant Stacey Goss (Exercise Director of OMG).  Lt. Goss asked if Carolyn could manage the role playing volunteers (it could be anywhere from 300 to 500).  Carolyn told her yes, but was holding her breath until she made one more phone call.

I was that next phone call.  I asked what would be the scope of the assistance.  Carolyn thought we had ten sites to manage; we will need to register the volunteers, provide snacks and food and arrange for moulage (applying make up to appear like injuries on selected role players).  But Carolyn said she was not sure.

I told Carolyn that we would need to meet with Lt. Goss as soon as possible, and anyone she recommended.  Within a week or two, Carolyn was able to have both of us to meet with Pony Anderson (Aurora Community College at Lowry), Fran Santagata (Douglas County Office of Emergency Management) and Lt. Goss herself.

We were able to get our ten sites down to three (Park Meadows, Smedley Elementary School and Aurora Community College at Lowry.  Snacks and food would be taken care of by the three jurisdictions, and moulage had been contracted out.

Therefore, all we had to do was “herd cats”.

In my first meeting with Pony Anderson, she laid out in detail what was being planned at Lowry.  Basically lots of area to cover and lots of role players (maybe 250).  Pony looked at me and said, “Why aren’t you freaking out?”

“What you want us to do is to make sure the volunteer role players don’t get lost, hurt, sick, lots of water and fed?”

Pony nodded.

“We have been doing this in the NCR’s Full Scale CERT exercises since 2006.  We have not lost a volunteer yet.”

Pony looked like the weight of the world was taken off her shoulders.

I had similar meetings with Stacy and Fran.

Each of the three sites had unique challenges: Park Meadows – 3 AM start time, Smedley – lock down with possibly bored students playing hostages and of course Lowry with lots of acreage and the most role players.


The Emergency Operations Center at the Disaster Management Institute at the Community College of Aurora served as the control room for all elements of the exercise. Photo courtesy of Community College of Aurora.

With each site I had in mind the Site Managers: Donita Hilfinger at Park Meadows– outside of myself, she was the most familiar with Fran; Gary Freeman at Smedley – Lt. Goss was not sure who would be at Smedly, but it would be someone from Denver Police Department – with Gary as former law enforcement, this seemed like a good fit and Jenn Scott at Lowry – knowing her personality would put Pony at ease.

George Bartling set up our communications needs so that we could talk to Smedley, Park Meadows, Lowry and the Denver EOC.  George is my hero.

As always, our teams went above the call of duty.  Prior to the start of OMG, the Lowry team helped straighten up and clean the Katrina Building.  During the exercise at Park Meadows, the Mall team helped place the role players.

My challenge was to see if I could use my mobile radio to broadcast out of the Denver EOC and communicate with all the other sites.  I used my 40 watt mobile radio, external power supply, magnetic mounted antenna, which connected to Jeannie’s (the XYL) old cookie sheet (acting as a ground plane).  I was concerned how well I could transmit and be received, being in a basement and downtown with all those tall buildings.

It worked really well!  I could contact George at Lowry and Donita at Park Meadows.  With Pat O’Neill, our radio person at Smedley, she could hear me, but had to use her cell phone to call me and to check in.

The only excitement reported to Denver EOC was when one of the Role Players got carried away with their role and this got the attention of the FBI.  After some discussion, everything seemed to be okay.

All in all, I believe the entire operation went very well!  Since OMG, I have received praise after praise on how professional and accommodating O.M.E.G.A. had been and they see us in a better light!

Colorado Remembers 9/11

On July 27, shortly after we got back from our week of adventures in Glenwood Springs, I received an e-mail form a search and rescue mailing list that I am on.  It forwarded an invitation from Governor John Hickenlooper inviting the state’s volunteer responders to participate in the 9-11 Remembrance Ceremony at the Denver Civic Center Park.  The event was to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9-11 and would have a presentation and entertainment portion.

I was a little skeptical, but I forwarded the message to the group that same day with an introduction that read, “Is this something that we’re interested in?”  I expected the answer to be “no”.  I wasn’t surprised that this was the initial response.

That was it for about 24 hours.  Then I found a second invitation in my mailbox, this one from the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, reiterating the Governor’s desire to have volunteer responders be present at the 9/11 Remembrance March.  And on August 1 I received the same invitation from the City of Aurora.  And on August 3 from The CELL.  The topic made it to the August 9 board meeting where the directors decided that the invitation should be taken seriously and that we should make contact with The CELL, which was coordinating the event, and ask more questions.  It made sense that we register and we did.  But the invitations did not stop coming.  On August 13 we received an invitation from ARES, on August 15 from the City and County of Denver, on September 1 from VOAD.  Yeah, we were in.  All in.

9/11 - 1

First responders gather at the Auraria Campus in preparation for the Remembrance March. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

The day of the event came and we gathered in downtown Denver at the Auraria Campus.  Parking for participants was provided there because the downtown area was expected to be a parking nightmare.  We stood there among policemen and firefighters, the paramedics and the National Guard and a multitude of other response teams, including the Salvation Army and communications teams and a variety of flavors of CERT and, of course, the purple shirts of O.M.E.G.A.  Each group stood out with their own colors and clustered together, creating patches in the quilt that was going to form into a parade.  RTD buses followed one another, loading the procession participants and taking them to the State Capitol.

In all honesty, I detected a certain level of trepidation among the participants and when the members of O.M.E.G.A. talked, the event was still a large unknown.  Did we really fit in with the police and the paramedics?  What was our contribution to public safety?

At the State Capitol we were fed lunch by Americorps, who interestingly did not participate in the parade, then we were marshaled into a parade line four people across.  The National Guard led the procession, followed by police and fire, then O.M.E.G.A., then CERT and the Salvation Army and other volunteer groups.  Ending up directly behind the professional first responders was an interesting place to be.  Directly in front of us were El Paso County Deputies and Colorado Springs Police.  They kept glancing back at us, then decided to break the ice and ask who we were and what we did.  Our purple shirts stood out and our logo was completely unfamiliar to them.  In the time that we waited for the lineup to complete and the parade to start, they became familiar with us as a multidisciplinary response team and we were telling war stories back and forth.

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The procession wound its way from the Colorado State Capitol into Civic Center Park. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

Then it was time for the procession to move forward.  We were warned to stay in our designated rows, but told that we did not need to stay in step.  Just watch our spacing and our row.  The line moved, proceeding from the east side of the State Capitol, past the south stairs and around to the west entrance, overlooking Civic Center Park and the Denver City and County Building on the far side.  As we moved forward the procession split into two columns of two, passing around the Civil War Memorial and proceeding down the stairs across Lincoln Street, on both sides of the Colorado Veterans Monument and onto Broadway.  Two fire trucks sat on Broadway with their ladders raised high in the air, the flag of Colorado hanging on the right and the City and County of Denver flag on the left.  The two columns merged as we crossed the street into the main portion of the park.

There was an increasing number of spectators as we got closer to the stage built just off Bannock Street, directly in front of the City and County Building.  As we made the trek from the State Capitol into the main section of the park, we were greeted with photographers, an occasional cheer and saluting spectators, but as we walked into the main open plaza of Civic Center Park, we found ourselves in a mass of tens of thousands of spectators, cheering and whistling and applauding.  And all of a sudden this entire exercise made sense.  We did not come to be recognized.  We did not come to be heroes.  We did not come to be acknowledged.  We came in the spirit of those who came before us, those who were the heroes of 9-11, of Afghanistan and of Iraq.  We represented the people who our country rallied behind and we were not there for ourselves.  We were there for those who came to see us.  The cheer was an emotional wave and all previous trepidation and concern were gone.

I can’t say that we had the best seats in the house.  We had no seats at all.  The responders remained standing in the column they came in for the duration of the ceremony.  We could see through the trees and gathered spectators the stage where the Colorado Children’s Chorale sang the National Anthem and the posting of the colors.  An invocation was given by a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi.  Then Governor Hickenlooper spoke, followed by Senator Udall, Senator Bennet and Congresswoman DeGette.  Their memories of 9-11 and visions for the future were followed by a moment of silence.  The crowd became so quiet that we could hear the birds in the trees.  A bell was rang to remember those who had been lost and after the firing of the salute, National Guard planes flew directly over us.  The ceremony was concluded with a benediction by a Christian minister and an Islamic imam.  The colors were retired and the procession moved again to another explosion of cheers.  We exited onto Bannock, past the World Trade Center steel and an honor guard that stood before it.

We had the option of staying or leaving.  RTD buses were ready to take us back to the Auraria Campus or we could linger and watch the concert, featuring the Colorado Symphony, Tyler Ward and the Beach Boys.

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An honor guard stands before the World Trade Center steel at the 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony. Photo by L. Abeyta.

The 9-11 Remembrance Ceremony was an amazing experience and a memory that I will carry with me for many years to come.  I hope that no one ever has to respond to another 9-11, but in life there are no absolutes.  We will continue to train.  Thank you, Colorado, for being there to support us.

Denver CERT Graduation Exercise

In preparing for the next CERT Graduation, Gary Freeman, John Grahn and I thought this was going to be just another training exercise.  That was before we met Gil and Shirl Garcia.

Gil and Shirl attended a CERT Class being taught by Gary and myself at the City of Denver’s Human Resources Building at 1200 Federal, Denver Colorado.  Both Gil and Shirl were very attentive during the instruction, asked a lot of questions and participated in mini-exercises we sprinkled throughout the course.

But then, that is what we expect out of all students in our class.

What made Gil and Shirl stand out from the rest of the class?  Shirl is a survivor of Wilson’s Disease.  Wilson’s Disease is an inherited form of copper poisoning.

Copper in the blood exists in two forms: bound to ceruloplasmin (85–95%) and the rest “free” loosely bound to albumin and small molecules.  Free copper causes toxicity as it generates reactive oxygen species such as superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, the hydroxyl radical.  These damage proteins, lipids and DNA.

From my understanding about Wilson’s Disease, it causes the body to retain copper, since it is not excreted by the liver into the bile.  This disease, if untreated, can lead to brain and liver damage.

Shirl survived the initial attack (Wilson’s Disease does not always show up at birth and can be dormant for years), but it damaged her ability to talk, her walking gait is unsteady and her hand writing is as challenging to decipher as her verbal skills (although given time, you can start to understand her).  These challenges did not stop her from trying to communicate.  Shirl comes armed with a hand pad so she can write out her messages, she brings a lap top for more involved dialog and then there is her husband Gil, who is Shirl’s translator.

During lunch one day, after we had covered module 6 (Incident Command System), Shirl wanted to know if I thought she had what it takes to be an Incident Commander (the person responsible for all aspects of an emergency response).

I told her that I thought her biggest challenge would be to communicate her orders to the team.  Gil, her husband, said he did not think that would be a problem, as she has been bossing him around for years.  After Gil survived Shirl’s shoulder punch, I told Shirl that I have seen those who seem to have no disability have more trouble communicating with the incident team.  So if she felt up to the challenge, go for it or step up to one of the other positions in the basic CERT ICS: Operations Chief (responsible for the management of all operations of the incident), Logistics Chief (responsible for ordering additional personnel and equipment resources as needed), Planning Chief (collects, evaluates, processes and disseminates information for use at the incident) or the Administration Chief (incident documentation – notes and receipts).  I could tell the wheels were turning in her head.

On July 30, close to 80 brave CERT students joined Shirl and Gil and gathered at our testing site.  I would like to thank Pat O’Neill for registering the participants and Rose Critchfield for hiding the survivors (once John worked his moulage magic).

As John was preparing the survivors with their various injuries, both Gary and I were using this time to go over, very quickly, the highlights of the CERT curriculum.  This has been a nice review time for everyone.

Then Rose gave me the high sign and it was time to have the students “put up or shut up”.

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Denver CERT graduating class gathers for an incident briefing. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

Once the Incident Commander was selected and he was starting to select his General Staff (Operations, Planning, Administration and Logistics), he received a resounding tap on the arm.  It was Shirl, pointing the finger to her and in a clear voice: “Logistics”.

The IC looked over at me and Shirl tapped his arm, pointing to her portable note pad that had these words written: “If I can’t do the job, fire me.”  He looked at her and said, “Deal”.

Shirl was one of the best Logistics Chiefs that I have had the pleasure of observing.  She anticipated the needs of the team, offered alternatives when the plan was not working very well (it never does in our exercises).  The entire group of CERT students walked away with a new perspective on disabilities, thanks to Shril (one of them being – the disabled do not like being called “special”).  And she did this with out her Chief Translator, Gil, who was part of a search, rescue and triage team.

A few weeks later I ran into Shirl at the State of Colorado Functional and Access Needs Tabletop and Workshop held in Denver.  She shared with the workshop her perspective that just because she has a disability, does not mean that she can’t come up with a plan to help herself and her family in case of a disaster.  Thanks to the CERT class she had taken in Denver (Shirl and Gil live in southern Weld County) she was given a tremendous degree of freedom and control for her family and herself.

I did walk away that day thinking that Shirl and Gil were special.  Not because of Shirl’s disability or because Gil has been her chief cheerleader, but because they stepped up into the realm of volunteer emergency preparedness and are willing to share their knowledge and enthusiasm.

So the next time you see a person in a wheel chair or a walker or holding a speech device, consider that what’s visible on the surface can be very different from what’s hidden underneath.