by Pam Zubeck
During his regular interview with FOX21 News on April 4, the day after the city released its Waldo Canyon Fire Final After Action Report, Mayor Steve Bach made the following statement:
"It started in the county. We had no authority go to into the county and put that fire out ourselves. We were not legally authorized to fight that fire until it entered the city."
That sounded strange, considering multiple jurisdictions worked the fire under Unified Command, which is defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as "Incident Commanders from the various jurisdictions or organizations operating together to form a single command structure."
Unity of command is maintained, FEMA notes, with commanders making "joint decisions and speak[ing] as one voice" due to a "shared understanding of priorities and restrictions, a single set of incident objectives, collaborative strategies, improved internal and external information flow, less duplication of efforts, better resource utilization."
To achieve Unified Command, local jurisdictions delegate authority up the ladder, first to the state government, then to the federal government. This affords access to federal resources and places all commanders under an umbrella of unity.
Translation: As early as the fire's first day, the city could have entered into a joint effort to battle it. In fact, that's what other local agencies did, when they signed delegations of authority that put the U.S. Forest Service's Type 3 Incident Management Team in a leadership role. (That team would be replaced by a Forest Service Type 1 Team on Monday morning.) The city balked until Sunday, when it signed its own document that specified it would retain operational authority over its own assets.
Here's an account by El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen, provided to us via e-mail in response to Bach's comment:
I personally invited the Mayor to our emergency operations center in Green Mountain Falls on Saturday evening at the suggestion of all who were present there, in order to discuss and coordinate the delegation of authority/unified command process together. Those present at that time included myself and Vice-Chair Sallie Clark, Sheriff Maketa, Commander Jim Reid, Deputy Fire Marshall Scott Campbell, Forest Supervisor Jeri Marr, State Representative Bob Gardner, County Attorney Bill Louis, Assistant County Attorney Amy Folsom, PIO Dave Rose and others.
After intense discussions, I was asked to contact the Mayor and invite him to our EOC to advance to the unified command under the delegation of authority. It was thought that because we had Forest Service, County, State, Sheriff and legal representation present in one room, that it made sense and would be extremely helpful to the City to come together there and then as we sought to be proactive just in case this fire would come any closer to City boundaries.
It is important to note that this delegation of authority process is contemplated and explained in our emergency operations plan which is updated regularly and distributed to numerous jurisdictions including the City of Colorado Springs. If my memory serves, no fewer than 5 copies were distributed to various departments throughout the City months prior to this incident.
I reached the Mayor by phone and invited him to join us for advisement and to join us in signing the delegation of authority. He said he would come right up. Some 20-30 minutes later, I received a call from Chief Rich Brown. He asked me why I asked the Mayor to come up the pass and I explained the people who were there, the coordination that we had discussed and the signing of the delegation of authority.
This was my first incident of such magnitude and I was certainly learning as the hours progressed - even after my emergency training at the National Emergency Training Center. Because of this, I gave the phone to Commander Reid so that he could more thoroughly explain the situation and process to Chief Brown. That was the last communication that I had personally with anyone from the City regarding the delegation of authority. It was later that night that I was told that the Mayor would not sign and then early Sunday morning that I was told they wrote their own document.
Since then and even recently, the Mayor has repeated in statements that I asked him that evening to sign over his authority to the Sheriff. That is factually inaccurate and a complete misunderstanding or misrepresentation of what the delegation of authority actually did. It allowed for access to State and Federal resources and created a unified command - to our type 1 team - essentially enabling a seamless decision making process for the fire fight. It did not eliminate or diminish the authority of any jurisdiction to make decisions outside of that process.
The city's AAR contains confusing language about how the city used its resources once it signed its own delegation of authority and the Type 1 Team took over. On the one hand, three Fire Department task forces of multiple engines were assigned to the Type 1 Team to provide structure protection in Cedar Heights. But then, the AAR states, the Fire Department also set up a "Structure Protection Group" of assets "that operated under the Operations Section of the Type 1 IMT, but was independent from the Type 1 IMT and remained under CSFD leadership." It was to be run by a CSFD deputy fire chief and battalion chief, from inside the command post.
Brown has said he specifically told Type 1 Team Incident Commander Rich Harvey, "You're not going to run the fire once it comes into the city."
So who should "run the fire" in such a situation? Apparently, not Brown himself. Here's what he said during the April 3 news conference, in response to a question about whether additional command training had been obtained by the brass since the fire (something the AAR specifically notes is needed):
If the fire chief is in command of something like this, then the fire chief isn’t doing his job. My role in incident command structure of an event this size is to be part of the policy group [consisting of Bach, Brown, Bach's chief of staff Laura Neumann, Police Chief Pete Carey and emergency operations manager Bret Waters]. There are battalion chiefs, captains, lieutenants that far, far outweigh my certifications when it comes to actual incident command. My role now as the fire chief ... is not to be in the weeds, but to be saying, "What do the troops need?"
(You can see the AAR for all the "troops" needed, but didn't get, during the fire.)
Anyway, we also asked Sheriff Terry Maketa for his thoughts on Bach's assessment that the city had its hands tied in the lead-up to the fire surging into Mountain Shadows. Here's his response, which we received by e-mail:
There are two separate processes that contradict the Mayor's statement. First of all, the Mutual Aid law under Colorado Revised Statutes (CRS); secondly, delegation of authority under a unified command would have clearly authorized them to assist which in fact they did. There were members of CSFD working the fire directly before it entered the city. The CSFD PIO, Sunny Smaldino, personally told me her husband was fighting the fire and assigned to a wildland team prior to the fire ever entering the city. On day one, they responded to the Ute Pass area but were redirected to Cedar Heights as that was the direction the fire was traveling. Later that same day, CSFD PIO Smaldino made public announcements concerning CSFD's efforts fighting the fire. To insinuate the city could not respond is not only flawed, but factually inaccurate and shows his claims are false.
This claim that it started in the county and they could not do anything is not true. Furthermore, if Mayor Bach reads the State laws concerning wildland fires, it clearly specifies the process under delegation of authority and how it works. This fire was on National Forest property and to access state and national resources Colorado State Law requires delegation of authority of affected jurisdictions or those that may potentially be affected, enter into the delegation of authority to minimize financial responsibility and more importantly access state and ultimately federal government resources. I want to stress this is the process for resources and cost management. The reason for this is because incidents such as in the case of the Waldo Canyon fire may escalate beyond the capacity of special districts, local jurisdiction, county and even the state first responders. From the comment you provided, the Mayor must have unlimited access to aircraft and manpower. Frankly, to lead an audience to believe if he could have initiated his resources, he would have put the fire out, is not only an insult to the hundreds and hundreds of fire fighters that fought that fire including the numerous pilots providing aerial support but its false and beyond arrogant. In reality, he does not and had no ability to put out the fire since he did not have several hundred trained wildland fire fighters nor does he have control over numerous aerial platforms.
The Mayor has continuously confused his definition of delegation of authority as an act of complete relinquishment of operational authority and responsibility which sounds like the case with his quotes. His perception and claim is not supported by the actual statutory definition under Colorado Law. I have heard him in the past refer to never delegating responsibility to another entity, be it state or the federal agencies which indicates he is not familiar with wildland fire laws and process, and that is unfortunate as he appears to be passing blame on a topic he lacks knowledge and understanding. The delegation of authority is the mechanism to authorize access to state and federal resources. The delegation of authority creates the opportunity for a shared cost for the incident. There is nothing in the wildland fire laws or a delegation of authority document that restricts what an entity can do with regard to fighting a fire. State law also defines and spells out the process for incident command and unified command. As a matter of fact, under a delegation of authority process CRS requires a unified command approach. Nothing in those laws restricts fire fighting efforts of any responder or jurisdiction. If he can show me otherwise, I would love to see what law he is following and why he is arriving at these conclusions.
I might add that based on my experience and knowledge of my statutory responsibility of wildland fires, Colorado law, input from experts, and the affected terrain, I signed a delegation of authority to the State sometime around 1830 hours on Saturday the day the fire began. The City of Colorado Springs refused to enter that process at that time and later signed the agreement entered with disclaimers. This refusal by the City was the first time I have witnessed that type of action during my tenure as Sheriff and Undersheriff. I knew on the first day we would need the assistance of not only State resources but more importantly Federal fire fighting resources.
It is unfortunate that the Mayor has made these allegations of blame yet has not educated himself on the wildland fire statutes and the meaning of terms such as delegation of authority, mutual aid, unified command and national incident management systems or incident command. With an incident reaching the magnitude of the Waldo Canyon fire requiring multi-agency response at local, state and national level, it is critical that those of us in leadership positions work collectively in a unified effort and not be driven by who is in charge but what each of us can contribute together to combat public safety threats and concerns.
Bach went on to tell FOX21 that when the fire entered the city at 4:18 p.m. on Tuesday, it was "with a 65 mile an hour wind and a hundred-foot wall of flames. Honestly, we could have had 5,000 firefighters up in Mountain Shadows, and we would not have been able to put it out."
The AAR did not report, but we did ("Misfire," Dec. 12, 2012), that the city had only four firefighting apparatus in the Mountain Shadows vicinity before the fire erupted on that fateful day.
Bach says he's ready to participate in a multi-agency review of the fire, which Waters says will delve into command issues. See csindy.com tomorrow for more on that.