National / News / September 17, 2008

For Denver Health and Safety Department, DNC is more than the speeches

DENVER, COLO. – Approximately 50,000 people attended events associated with the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colo. August 22-25. Those 50,000 people also visited Denver restaurants, and occupied 17,200 out of the 40,000 hotel rooms in the Metro Area. It was the responsibility of the Denver Heath and Safety Department, in coordination with other agencies, to account for their safety.

Environmental Health Director Karol Holcomb, explained that the department conducted inspections of several downtown hotels and restaurants, as well as the kitchens at the Pepsi Center and Invesco Field — the two main facilities utilized during the convention.

The Environmental Heath Department conducts food inspections of both restaurants and mobile vendors. Holcomb said some restaurants ask for temporary permits when the city hosts large events. One of the most common requests is for a permit to serve food outdoors.

Food inspections are conducted in accordance with guidelines established by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Critical items, or those directly related to foodborne illness, include food source, food temperature control, pest control, plumbing and sewage systems, employee heath and hygienic practices, and labeling and storage of toxic items.

“We look at their menu. There are things that are applicable to some, but not to others,” said Environmental Public Heath Supervisor Danica England. “For example, if a restaurant has soup on the menu, we’ll check the temperature and make sure it’s being properly stored and reheated. You have to customize each inspection.”

Each member of the department has taken between three and seven courses from Homeland Security. Denver Health and Safety often works in association with other agencies — including the fire and police departments and Red Cross — so employees must learn the common terminology and chain of command.

“I think those are really the two most important things,” said Holcomb. “When the Feds and other organizations come in, somebody’s got to be ready and in charge. You can’t have too many chiefs, or nothing gets done. And, you have to be using the same terms and definitions, or things get confusing.”

The Incident Command System (ICS) Manual, which is used to train new employees and is one of several reference books on the shelves in Holcomb’s office, explains the difference between Unified Command and Unity of Command. The former, a system that “allows all responsible agencies to manage an incident by establishing a common set of incident objectives and strategies,” is useful in overcoming inefficiency and duplication of effort. The latter, a system in which “every individual has a designated supervisor to whom they report at the scene of the incident, helps ensure clear reporting and confusion caused by multiple, conflicting directives.”

Both systems are important when seeking mutual aid from other cities and states. In the event of an emergency, each person is given a vest with a label signifying their role. These are universal labels that are used across the country.

“If I call someone in another state and say, ‘Hi. I am the Denver Logistics Chief,’ they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about and what information they’ll need to give me,” she said.

The Health and Safety Department runs frequent drills with other agencies.

“We’ve done practice disasters at the 16th Street Mall and Invesco [Field] where we had to administer drive-through vaccinations,” said Holcomb. “We do a hot wash after training sessions to discuss what went well and what didn’t. It’s always nerve racking, but it gets easier under pressure.”

During drills and training sessions workers practice the roles they might be expected to perform in a real emergency. If filling a role they are unaccustomed to, they are given an information packet outlining their duties.

The first step in responding to an emergency, particularly one dealing with air contamination, is to receive a briefing on weather conditions, wind direction, and whatever other information is available.

Field packs are stored in the Ready Room for easy access in an emergency. Some packs are personalized with safety gear specially measured to fit their owners.

When they are not out in the field, or directly responding to an emergency, workers watch the incident on TV monitors.

“We’ve been trained to use 800 mg. radios with several channels, in case other systems go down,” said Holcomb.

Holcomb said she works an average of 50 hours a week “and that doesn’t include the brain time when I wake-up at night, thinking about it. For big events, people do work more hours. My food section manager has been working 10-11 hour days. It definitely impacts your family.”

The department has a small room with two cots where people can rest or take naps when working long hours.

At 10:32 on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 26, the Denver Fire Department responded to a fire at 1542 Gaylord St. The fire crew requested a health inspector, because the building was full of excrement. There were also several stacks of bricks stored in the building, and there was some concern that protestors could have placed them — along with bottles of excrement — there. The property was placarded to prevent entrance.

“It could be coincidental. We usually don’t do vacant properties, unless people are complaining. It could be the stuff has been there for a long time and no one’s complained,” said Holcomb. “We would check even if it wasn’t the DNC, but we’ve heard protesters can sometimes behave that way.”

Although the Heath and Safety Department’s primary concerns were focused on the more minute details of the convention, Holcomb and her colleagues were acutely aware of everything from protests to traffic.

For some Denver Heath and Safety Department workers, as well as employees of other downtown businesses, street closures meant finding alternative routes to and from work. Holcomb spent over 20 minutes trying to exit the parking garage on Aug. 25.

On the same day, a health inspector had to be pulled from a mob of protestors by his co-worker. The mob formed outside the entrance to the Adam’s Mark Hotel, where Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak the following day.

“Anything can happen at any time. That’s the message,” said Holcomb. “Events like this are great for the city if all goes well.”

Erin Coleman

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