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Commissioner Littleton proposing planning for the worst

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Peggy Littleton: Better safe than sorry. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Peggy Littleton: Better safe than sorry.

What if a hacker invaded the electric grid and shut down power in Colorado, or even the entire West?

What if a blizzard or a pandemic halted travel, power and communications for days on end?

What if a solar flare or a terrorist attack stymied the region's internet capability, shut down power and isolated entire neighborhoods or cities from knowing what was going on?

Those possible scenarios inspired El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton to conjure the Lighthouse Prime communications strategy, based on models found in Seattle and elsewhere, as a way to keep the public informed through a pyramid of pipelines that convey information to and from neighborhoods.

"When government can't be there, the citizens are going to be first responders," Littleton told the county commission during a May 25 work session.

The idea, which grew from Littleton's exposure to the Emergency Management Institute in 2011, is to have a pre-established protocol for how the government would communicate with citizens using ties with ham radio operators, who could reach neighborhoods via designated contacts.

"There needs to be a sole source disseminating information, giving accurate and timely information," Littleton said. That source should be the county's emergency operations center, or Colorado Springs' counterpart, that would relay messages to neighborhood groups, who might take refuge in churches, schools and police and fire stations. Those sites are called beacons under the Lighthouse system. From there, beacons would transmit information to families, which are labeled "candles," creating a two-way communications system.

Littleton got plenty of support for her idea from various experts. Former El Paso-Teller County E-911 Authority manager Jim Anderson spoke via a video, saying, "If we lose everything, whether it's because of a solar flare, man-made disaster or terrorist event, we're going to have to use a Lighthouse project."

Pete Judiscak, who's designed exercises for emergency first responders, reported more than 130 major grid outages took place worldwide from 1980 to 2016 due to solar storms, weather, terrorism, human error, accidents, mechanical failures and fires. "The result is people without power for weeks," Judiscak says, "loss of communications, interruption of water, transportation, medical services." Rioting and other violence also can erupt, he said.

"There are in the state of Colorado less than five gas stations that have backup generation or the capability of having it," he noted.

Dawn Roth Lindell, with the Western Area Power Administration, previously worked for Colorado Springs Utilities from 2005 to 2013. By the time she left Utilities, she said attempts to breach its firewalls had reached more than 1 million per day. "We will need a way to communicate that doesn't involve electricity," she said.

Ultimately, said Erfan Ibrahim, with the National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, the entire system should be decentralized to minimize impact of an attack. That means creating what he called "smart communities" that are self-sufficient for energy, water, recycling and food production.

To set up a countywide system, Littleton says the county should hire a full-time person to interface with the county's Office of Emergency Management (OEM), identify Lighthouse and Beacon locations, strike deals to use those locations and recruit ham radio operators that rely on generators.

"The cost of not preparing," she said, "is greater than preparing."

Commissioners expressed interest, but postponed action, pending a joint meeting with the Colorado Springs City Council at 1 p.m. June 29, during which merging the city and county OEMs will be discussed.

This article has been updated with a correction.

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