LAKEWOOD, Colo. (KDVR) — On a scale of one to 10, Colorado’s top fire leader said he’d give the state’s mutual aid dispatching response during the Marshall Fire a six or a seven.
“I know there’s room for improvement,” said Mike Morgan, the director of Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “But… I’ve been in the fire service for 35 years in Colorado, and I’ve seen where we’ve been. And in the last about 18 months, I see the difference that we’ve been able to do.”
New statewide emergency mutual aid system
Although Colorado is a local-control state, Morgan said a new state law enacted in July 2021 compelled the Division of Fire Protection and Control to develop a regional and statewide mutual aid system that would provide a coordinated initial response for emergency responders in significant situations, like the Marshall Fire.
According to Morgan, the system was not fully implemented at the time of the fire, so the state used emails to summon mutual aid services. He said they were able to rally as many as 57 additional fire apparatus to help fight the blaze because of it.
“We did that, but it still has some clunkiness to it,” Morgan said. He said the process would become smoother if the state is able to follow through with recently approved recommendations made by the Colorado Fire Commission that would further develop a mutual aid coordination system to be available 24/7, year-round.
“I don’t know that a state coordination center solves that chaos right upfront. I think what it can do is it can provide some depth to maybe lessen the workload a little bit,” he said.
Morgan said the recommendations made by the Colorado Fire Commission are shared with the general assembly for legislative consideration.
Emergency communication issues around for decades
Morgan also addressed concerns from fire leaders who responded to the Marshall Fire and had difficulty communicating — via radio — with fellow fire crews.
“There’s a lot of stakeholders in that conversation,” said Morgan, who is the subcommittee vice-chair of the state’s fire commission. “Why the fire commission was built was to bring those stakeholders into one room and say, ‘We’ve got an issue. We need to roll up our sleeves. We need to try to figure it out.’”
Morgan said radio problems have been known over the years, but they’ve never been the top priority of the commission since it was created in 2019.
“Perhaps this will be the domino that says, ‘We need the fire commission to weigh in on this overall communications problem,’” he said.
Morgan said higher priorities in recent years include firefighter training and equipping firefighters with the minimum tools and basic protective equipment they need to do their daily jobs. However, communication issues have presented problems for decades, he said.
“It’s so hard to get it right. I think if we can find some solutions, I think the time is now that people want to take a stand to help implement those things,” Morgan said.
State analyzing Marshall Fire response
This week, the state initiated an inter-agency Facilitated Learning Analysis, with the help of local and federal leaders who will be conducting interviews with key players involved in the Marshall Fire.
“We want to find out what can we learn and what can we do better next time,” Morgan said.
He said he has also discussed working with the U.S. Fire Administrator, the International Code Council, the Firefighter Safety Research Institute, the National Fire Sprinkler Association, and the National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation to help avoid future situations like the Marshall Fire.
“What things can we learn there to be more disciplined to not take unnecessary risk for our own safety, so I think there’s a lot of lessons we can learn as this goes forward,” he said.