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Colorado Springs Mayor defends proposed evacuation plan after community push back

COLORADO SPRINGS. Colo. (KRDO) -- Over the past two months, dozens upon dozens of emails from concerned community members have flooded the inboxes of KRDO NewsChannel 13, Colorado Springs City Council members, and Mayor John Suthers concerning fire evacuation preparedness within the city. A majority of the emails possess the same messaging - "dismiss the City-proposed fire ordinance which is woefully inadequate and does not address resident concerns."

On Tuesday, July 12, Colorado Springs City Council voted unanimously to move forward with the newly proposed ordinance for a first reading. The final vote will take place at a council meeting in two weeks.

Additionally, Suthers publicly defended his own proposal for the very first time Tuesday.

The ordinance would direct the Colorado Springs Fire Department and Police Department in conjunction with the Pikes Peak Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to form an All-Hazards Evacuation Plan (AHEP).

"The AHEP shall be reviewed annually by the OEM, the Police Department, and Fire Department and undergo a full review by the City Engineer, the Public Works Director, the Traffic Engineer, the Director of Planning and Community Development, and Colorado Springs Utilities every five years," the ordinance says.

The AHEP also includes evacuation operations, and pre-determined evacuation zones, and would divide the city into different evacuation zones depending on a number of major factors including topography, neighborhoods, and roadway systems.  

Fire responder leaders in Colorado Springs have publicly discussed implementing the program Zonehaven into the city's evacuation plans. Zonehaven would break the municipality into smaller evacuation zones, however, the ordinance makes no explicit mention of the program.

This ordinance follows 13 Investigates own special report "Fleeing the Flames", where leaders with the group Westside Watch said the results from a study, conducted by evacuation experts across the country, prove that the city is less than prepared when it comes to evacuating the community safely should Colorado Springs experience another Waldo Canyon Fire.

Westside Watch paid thousands of dollars to hire Mike Robinson, a professor from Old Dominion, to look into how long it will take to evacuate people from their homes. Robinson tells 13 Investigates his objective was to find the time it took to get everyone evacuated from key neighborhoods in Colorado Springs like the Broadmoor area and North of Colorado Springs.

Using a system called FLEET - funded by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security - Robinson found it could take hours to get everyone evacuated from these neighborhoods. Simulations found that Garden of the Gods Road, Centennial Boulevard, Woodman Avenue, and Rockrimmon Boulevard were highly congested, and got worse the closer vehicles got to Interstate-25.

"To ask me what the target times should be is really not a fair question. I could say I think it ought to be an hour. I'm not qualified to say that, it needs to be said by a fire expert. But if I lived on the western side of [District 1 and Broadmoor District], I wouldn't be very comfortable."

Following the 13 Investigates special report, experts presented their findings to Colorado Springs City Council during a work session in November. Westside Watch then presented their own ordinance to the elected leaders that they claimed would set the standard for cities across the country when it came to disaster evacuation preparedness.

If approved by the city, the Westside Watch ordinance would establish clear evacuation time standards for neighborhoods throughout the city, allow citizens to access evacuation maps for their particular neighborhoods, mandate egress route requirements, and developers and the city must conduct analyses on how new developments would impact evacuations in the community.

Following Westside Watch's presentation, Colorado Springs City Council President Tom Strand told 13 Investigates that they needed to take a closer look at evacuation plans. However, Strand feared that the Westside Watch plan was simply anti-development.

At Tuesday's council meeting, Mayor Suthers commented on his own legal concerns should the city stop or stall development in the sake of evacuation safety.

“To stop private property owners and developers from building more affordable housing on the theory that it would slow me down when getting out of my upscale neighborhood then I would suggest that you be prepared to buy this private property," Suther said to the council. "Because that very well may be an unconstitutional taking."

Opponents to the Mayor's ordinance say they are not anti-development, but they want the city to look more closely at how new development impacts people's ability to get to safety during a disaster.

Suthers also commented on Westside Watch's insistence on the city providing evacuation maps to the public. On Tuesday, the mayor said evacuation maps would do more harm than good.

“You simply cannot tell people in advance the precise route to evacuate," Suthers said. "That could result in an unnecessary loss of life. Incident commanders often have to make on-site decisions about evacuations.” 

In response to the Mayor's evacuation plans, Westside Watch said it fails to put specific evacuation plans into code and doesn't make any clear requirements for Colorado Springs Fire or Police.

Mayor Suther told the council his office takes evacuation planning and preparedness extremely seriously, however, there is no way to completely rid the community of the risk. The Colorado Springs Mayor went on to say that the people who live in wildfire-prone neighborhoods need to accept the additional risk and prepare accordingly.

Council member Bill Murray called for the Mayor's proposed ordinance to be set aside until the city can conduct additional research on whether Zonehaven and FLEET could coexist. City council President Tom Strand ordered city staff to spend the next 120 days looking into this proposal, however, council members still voted to move forward with the ordinance as it's currently written.

Fellow Colorado Springs council member Wayne Williams pointed out that this ordinance doesn't choose Zonehaven over FLEET, and both could potentially coexist. Williams said the Mayor's proposal is better than what the city currently has when it comes to evacuation preparedness, and not passing it would "put the safety of Colorado Springs in jeopardy."

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Dan Beedie

Dan is a reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about Dan here.

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