When wildfire strikes in Colorado, as it does with increasing frequency, a patchwork of agencies – local, state and federal – typically responds. Dispatching a full cavalcade of forces to prevent disaster and manage fire is appropriate and welcome, and fundamental to that effort’s effectiveness as an efficient communications infrastructure. For more than a decade, that efficiency has been lacking in Colorado. As state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, recognizes, correcting that should be the top priority in crafting the state’s wildfire response strategy.
The current system has agencies of various jurisdictions communicating via radios of differing technology. Federal agencies use VHF radios – an archaic but functional system that allows communication in mountainous regions. Local and state agencies employ a digital radio system, introduced after Sept. 11, 2001, with federal grants aimed to improve emergency response systems. The money was not quite enough to fully implement and integrate the new systems, and there have been problems with the digital technology functioning properly in Colorado’s copious mountains. That unfortunate combination of circumstances has left emergency responders with a communications system that is less than ideal and has the potential for dangerous outcomes given the inefficiencies. The state should focus on finding a functional technology that allows for streamlined coordination among the various agencies working together to manage wildfires in Colorado.
Doing so will not necessarily be easy, nor will it come without significant investment. The digital system has languished because the grants that initially funded its installation were exhausted before all local police and fire departments had updated their systems. That left a gap that has furthered the communications inefficiencies; filling it will require money, and the state must decide whether to prioritize the investment. It should.
Roberts is correct in identifying the inefficiency as a top priority for Colorado. Without clear and effective communications systems, coordinating any response – to wildfire or otherwise – is potentially compromised. Both the Legislature, through its Wildfire Matters Review Committee, or Gov. John Hickenlooper, through his task force on wildfire, can prioritize this fix, and one or both of them ought to. It is a public-safety issue as well as an example of how to spend public dollars more efficiently. Doing so will come with fiscal and geographic challenges: Colorado’s topography is unyielding. Nevertheless, it is an investment that the state must make and underpins the effectiveness of any coordinated disaster response. Roberts and her colleagues should continue to birddog this effort to a successful conclusion.