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This is what we train for

Posted on 05/21/2018
This is what we train forStory by Baker Geist, Weld County Communications Specialist, photos from Roy Rudisill

There was nothing unusual about the weather to begin the day on May 22, 2008. It was calm and slightly overcast. Late in the morning, Weld County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Director Roy Rudisill was attending a Greeley Stampede Kickoff luncheon with members of the sheriff’s office, Greeley Police Department and Stampede Committee. In part, the luncheon was to name recipients of Stampede Foundation scholarships. While waiting for the presentation, his phone started ringing.

“We’re getting reports of tornadoes on the ground,” Rudisill said. “I’m talking to dispatch, and they’re saying, ‘we have a semi flipped over from a tornado.’”

Rudisill quickly headed to his car to get more information about the situation. On his way he noticed the weather had changed drastically, transforming a calm day to one of dark skies and extreme winds. With an understanding that something severe was on the horizon, he raced back to his office and activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), calling in emergency officials from the City of Greeley and Weld County.

Damage from the 2008 tornado.It wasn’t until staff got the radar pulled up at the EOC that they began to realize the true severity of the situation: what they were looking at would become an EF3 tornado and severely impact many communities in Weld County, including Platteville, Milliken, Johnstown, Greeley and Windsor.

Tornadoes are not uncommon in Weld County. Data from the Storm Events Database at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show that since 1950 there have been 263 tornadoes in Weld County. EF3 tornadoes are rare, however. Save for the EF3 tornado in 2008, the only other reported in the county was in 1953, causing $25,000 in damage. By comparison, the 2008 tornado was far more destructive, affecting many communities but hitting the town of Windsor the hardest. According to Windsor’s tornado recovery report, the tornado caused more than $100 million in damages and displaced 168 families. There was one fatality.

“I grew up in Greeley so I was used to seeing small tornadoes,” Rudisill said. “But to see the damage this one caused, I’d never seen anything like it.”

At the time of the tornado, the City of Greeley and Weld County shared an EOC. Staff represented many different areas of emergency response from both entities including information services, public works, the health department, volunteer agencies, law enforcement, and representatives from various utility companies. Together, staff worked diligently to implement an EOC plan, known today as an Incident Support Plan.

Coordinating a response to the chaotic weather that hit Weld County seemingly out of nowhere, staff in the EOC worked on many different objectives including assessing damage in effected areas and serving as a central hub for media to get information about the tornado to the public. From a county perspective, in a disaster like the tornado in 2008, the OEM was concerned about first responders having the supplies necessary to do their job and aid residents in the impacted areas.

“We support incident response and recovery by managing information, resources, and consequences,” said Merrie Leach Garner, Weld County Emergency Management Coordinator. “Sometimes resources are tactical resources like fire trucks and other times it’s things like generators, blankets, or water.”

Listening to Rudisill talk about the tornado 10 years later, no one would guess that he was relatively new to disaster management when the tornado struck. Following a career in patrol and investigations for the Weld County Sheriff’s Office, he became the director of the OEM in 2005. Although his positions with the sheriff’s office gave him a background in incident response, the tornado opened his eyes to the impact the OEM would have.

Still, during the actual tornado, he had to resist urges ingrained in him from his time with the sheriff’s office. Instead of physically helping, he was now tasked with the critical role of directing others to do so. Admittedly, the experience was somewhat eye-opening but built his confidence going forward.

“My first thought was I need to be over in Windsor,” Rudisill said. “But, what I saw happening when we first activated the EOC and started bringing people in was that people were looking to me for answers.”

Rudisill believes the OEM’s response during the tornado was a successful one because he was able to rely on his training and the expertise and experience of all involved to help residents impacted by the tornado. However, he also saw opportunities to improve.

“From a support standpoint, county agencies and county departments coming together with the City of Greeley and our leadership helped tremendously,” Rudisill said. “Even though we did a good job, there were a lot of things we needed to work on to improve on response.”
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there were seven areas (shown in red) where the tornado caused catastrophic damage.

Improvements Going Forward


Rudisill said some aspects of emergency response during the tornado that could’ve been handled better revolved around communication issues faced by staff in the EOC. The phone and radio systems eventually became overloaded limiting communication with dispatch. The size of the EOC also played a role as at times there were too many people in the room which made communication with public works, fire, law enforcement and other members of the EOC staff more challenging.

Following the tornado Weld County government and OEM have had opportunities to examine those challenges and have taken steps to alleviate them. A big step in improving emergency response came by moving the EOC from the sheriff’s office into the Weld County Administration Building. The new facility provided an area for everyone to meet and communicate openly and more effectively. A newer phone system has been installed which utilizes more than one phone line, eliminating the possibility of an overloaded system. To better identify staff in the room, it’s now a requirement that lead staff from different agencies wear a colored vest with identification. These improvements make communicating easier which in turn allows support to be sent quickly to those needing it most during an emergency.

Improved planning for a variety of emergencies was also a renewed focus for OEM. Rudisill and Garner regularly attend Multi-Agency Coordination (MAC) meetings, which serve as brainstorming sessions with other emergency response agencies throughout the county and state, where Incident Support Plans can be reviewed and improved upon.

OEM staff also attends different trainings including Colorado Emergency Management Training and different Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) courses in person and online.

Increased public education has also been a priority of both Rudisill and Garner. Weather-spotting training occurs regularly and provides residents an opportunity to learn how to recognize severe weather and steps to take to protect themselves and their families.

“How well you recover and how comfortable you are in any kind of disaster is directly proportional to how prepared you are,” Garner said. As part of her duties as the Emergency Management Coordinator, Garner teaches a “train the trainer” program aimed at helping residents learn about emergency preparedness with the hope that they will share the information with others.


Informing the Public


Code Red, the emergency alert system in Weld County, is one tool available to residents that will alert them to danger in their area, including severe weather if they choose. Residents can sign up to receive alerts via text or email, or receive a call on their cell phone or landline phone. Signing up is free and easy and can be done by visiting www.weld911alert.com or by calling (970) 304-6540 and asking to register.

Additionally, the office has its own website at www.weldoem.com, where visitors can find information on how to make emergency preparedness kits, watch videos on how to recognize dangerous weather, find OEM contact information and more.

While the 2008 tornado may be an event most want to forget, the OEM has improved greatly from the experience and has acknowledged its successes and shortcomings. As a result, when the next weather emergency occurs, Weld County residents can rest assured knowing that they will receive help in the most efficient and effective way possible.

“The emergency management program is always changing and always growing,” Rudisill said. “Following the tornado, there were lessons learned, and we take those lessons learned and continue to build and improve.”