ALAMOSA — Homeland Security has a presence — and a purpose — in the San Luis Valley.
Although many associate the Division of Homeland Security with preventing terrorist attacks — one of the division’s missions — the agency provides many other services.
For example, it assists the San Luis Valley in being prepared for any type of threat to public safety including natural threats such as floods and fires.
Meeting with the All Hazards team chaired by Alamosa Fire Chief Don Chapman on Monday, Colorado Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management Director Kevin Klein said Homeland Security has five main missions— prevent, predict, respond, recover and mitigate.
“Anything we can prevent, we want to prevent,” he said.
That makes sense for many reasons including pure dollars and cents. For every dollar spent in mitigation, at least $4 is realized in savings, he explained.
For example, there has been a lot of fire mitigation in the Valley, Chapman said. There needs to be more, he added, but sometimes it’s difficult to convince folks the shade tree next to the deck at their mountain retreat is a fire hazard.
One of the important ways the division has assisted the San Luis Valley, Klein said, is through funding for planning, training and regional staff such as Regional Field Manager David Osborn. Klein said it is important that funds are spread throughout the state, not just on the Front Range, and he visits the various regions in the state to “ground truth where we are at.”
“It’s all about making sure we have the capability to support those large scale incidents,” Klein said.
Homeland Security grants in this region for 2018 will provide more than $151,000 for planning and management of regional activities, equipment, training and exercises.
And yes, Homeland Security does provide counter terrorism efforts. For example the division has a fusion center, which provides a link between state and local governments and the U.S. intelligence community.
“We can share classified information with partners, up and down. We are always looking at that,” Klein said.
Homeland Security has many programs including the houses of worship program that handles threats facing churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. The state office has received good feedback and some referrals out of that, according to Klein.
In addition, the division has a terrorism liaison program with 700 people trained throughout the state to look out for suspicious activity, and Homeland Security works with the FBI in handling those reports.
“Frankly we have had issues all over the state,” Klein said. “We are always looking out for those types of threats and taking suspicious activity reports.”
He said people are encouraged to “see something, say something” if they are aware of suspicious activity. They can call Homeland Security’s office or local law enforcement.
“I think that’s pretty important when you look at just how many people knew something was wrong — maybe not exactly what was going to happen but knew something was wrong with somebody — in 75 percent of school shootings at least one person had known about the threat beforehand and in 50 percent more than one person knew,” Klein said. “Getting that information is important. That can happen anywhere. As we have seen across the nation, it’s not just big cities. Small towns have the same risk.”
Chapman said people tend to take it for granted that nothing will happen here, and Osborn added that the March 2008 salmonella crisis proved that emergencies can happen here.
“Salmonella in the water is so rare and to happen here in Alamosa …,” Osborn said.
Chapman said that was a good example of people working together.
The West Fork Complex Fire in 2013 was another example of that cooperation, Osborn added. That was the second largest fire in Colorado geographically, and for no homes or lives to be lost was amazing, he said.
Homeland Security also encourages residents to be personally prepared for incidents such as power outages, major storms or other incidents. The web site http://www.readycolorado.com/, for example, gives information on how to prepare. People need to have 72 hours’ worth of essential items such as their medications, food and other basics.
“Folks in the Valley are fairly self sufficient,” Klein said, “but we always want people to be ready with at least 72 hours of what they need until help can get there. People in the Valley are pretty self sufficient, which is not true in all parts of the state.”
“I would like to hope we can survive for 72 hours,” Chapman said. He said he would hope Valley residents would be prepared for emergencies such as power outages, especially in the winter, when they might be without services for a few days.
He said trainings and exercises have made the Valley more prepared for various threats. “There’s obviously some weak areas you tend to find through the training and the exercises.”
Chapman said the Homeland Security funds have helped provide more training, and as a whole the Valley county emergency service programs are more prepared as a result.
“I think emergency managers play a key role in all of that,” he said.
Osborn agreed. “From when we first started getting Homeland Security dollars to now, there’s been a significant change going forward in preparedness … It’s been a pretty drastic change.”
He said he wished every county had a full-time emergency manager. Currently Mineral and Saguache have full-time and the other counties part time emergency managers. Alamosa County’s part-time position is currently vacant.