Five questions for Tim Stoecklein

Knowledge the key to emergency preparedness, says UCCS program director

Tim Stoecklein (Photo: Philip Denman)

Growing up on a family farm in western Kansas taught Tim Stoecklein many things, a couple of which would ultimately take him to where he is today.

Survival Tips Don’t put your life in the hands of any one piece of equipment. Cell phones, personal locator beacons and GPS units are nothing more than tools … don’t use them as a crutch. Ask yourself, “Could I survive on my own if this piece of equipment is broken?”
Survival Tips Know before you go:  What type of terrain am I going to be on? What is the weather forecast? If that forecast is incorrect, do I have the resources to stay safe? How do I contact the local authorities if I need to? What other risks might I face during my trip?
Survival Tips Are those joining me on the trip prepared; are they reliable?
Survival Tips Know how to use your equipment before you need it!
Survival Tips Always let someone you trust – preferably a few different people — know the details of your trip: Departure/arrival times, intended route of travel, who is with you, a list of resources/equipment you are taking on the trip.

First, he realized that the only way to get off the tractor was to find a job. In high school and college, those jobs included sports officiation, lifeguarding and community recreation duties, which led him to work in campus recreation, including at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Stoecklein was hired as the associate director of the recreation center in 2007.

Second, living on the plains made him aware of the power of severe weather, but he’d never been exposed to the resulting devastation until a tornado struck Hoisington, Kan., in 2001. An outdoor education class he was teaching as part of his graduate work was diverted from a camping trip to help with cleanup.

“While helping residents salvage belongings from their destroyed homes, we heard amazing stories of survival, stories about how they did or did not receive warnings, how many were not prepared, and we witnessed first hand the impacts of the destruction on the small community,” he said.

Following the incident, he volunteered with a variety of emergency management and public safety groups, all the while taking advantage of training opportunities that came along. He parlayed these interests into both a job and an avocation.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with some outstanding emergency managers, public safety folks and National Weather Service employees. Seeing their interests and the importance of their work in their communities has fueled my interests in public safety,” said Stoecklein, who became UCCS’s program director of emergency management in July, and, during free time, a tornado chaser.

1. How do you prepare for campus emergencies and do you plan for all scenarios, even “unthinkable” ones?

We are continuously analyzing the risks that face our campus and community, be it natural or man-made, and preparing plans for prevention, response, recovery and mitigation. We develop the campus emergency operations plans, exercise these plans several times per year, provide preparedness education to the university campus as a whole, and collaborate with various departments on campus in additon to other local agencies as part of the city of Colorado Springs and El Paso County.

We take an “all-hazards” approach to preparedness for the campus, and therefore our plans, focus and efforts are constantly evolving. We have seen some high-profile incidents over the past 10 years that have shaped how we look at emergency management and preparedness in our country, communities and on our college campuses. We try our best to maintain a situational awareness about incidents and events that take place on other campuses across the country, not just those on our campus.

The media reported on the recent incident on the community college campus in Wyoming, but on that same day, there were also shooting incidents on or near Morgan State University in Baltimore and the Butler County Community College campus in Kansas. Also, in recent weeks we have seen bomb threats at campuses across the country, the impacts of severe weather involved with the hurricane and nor’easter near the East Coast, fires and hazardous materials incidents, all affecting college campuses as well. These are the types of incidents we are constantly looking at, and asking ourselves, “What would we do if this happened on our campus?”

We try to anticipate any risk – from the minor to the large-scale. Before the Waldo Canyon Fire, the university had participated in an “Up in Smoke” exercise the year before with the city. We’re always aware of the wildfire danger, not only around the city, but also behind us, on the bluffs and with the open space and grasslands. One of our recent exercises with the administration was a scenario where a plane crashes into a campus building. We did it not just because of Air Force aircraft flying in the area, but also because we are so close to the Colorado Springs Airport. The response we practiced wasn’t necessarily how to knock down a fire but how to continue with normal operations.

We plan for the worst and hope for the best. A hurricane is about the only thing we don’t plan for.

2. How did you get into storm chasing and what would a day on the road be like? 

After my experience with the Hoisington  community after the tornado, I wanted to help those involved in protecting the communities through the warning processes. I became involved with our local county spotter group, whose members were deployed around the area to provide “ground truth,” or eyes on the storms, as severe weather approached the area. I also read anything I could get my hands on to enhance my knowledge of how severe weather forms, the life cycle and evolution, the structure of storms and forecasting in general. Spotters are typically folks who stay in a designated area helping an agency such as the local emergency management, sheriff departments or the National Weather Service (NWS) directly. Chasing, on the other hand, is pursuing severe weather instead of waiting for it to come to you.

Some storm chasers simply want to witness the awesome displays of Mother Nature for their own enjoyment; others might capture images and video to share or sell to the media. Some chasers might be part of a scientific research program studying severe weather evolution, or they may simply be out there to enhance the warning network by sharing their observations with folks at the NWS offices.

Personally, my storm chasing pursuits take on many different interests. First, I want to help provide eyes on the ground in the near-storm environment to help the NWS and local media outlets provide warning to citizens who might be in the path of severe weather. Secondly, I’m out there to witness something that can be powerful, unpredictable, terrifying, serene and beautiful all at the same time. I like the challenge of developing my own forecasts, the strategies involved in being in the right place at the right time to witness it, actually being there to witness the successes and failures of my efforts and sharing my stories and images with family and friends  — or anyone else who can stand to listen to me babble about the weather.

I do share my images, and even stream live video from the field, to one of our local media outlets, KRDO. While there is some entertainment value to a live stream, it also can be a very strong motivator for seeking shelter compared to a radar image filled with bright colors. That is primarily why I stream  live video and share real-time imagery from the field, often via my Twitter account where it can be shared by the media, the NWS and even local emergency managers and citizens in the affected areas.

A typical chase day for me can start days before the actual chase. During severe weather season, I am constantly doing my own forecasting to determine if the chase day will be worth the travel and use of vacation time.  After all, this is really a hobby and not part of my job. The morning of a chase day is spent narrowing my forecasted “chase target” to determing the area where I give myself the best odds of observing severe weather. I also outfit my vehicle with equipment that can include cameras, a laptop, mobile data to access information and stream my video via the Internet, ham radio equipment and many other items I might need as the chase evolves.  Once on the road to my chase target, I’m constantly monitoring conditions to narrow my focus until storms actually develop. Once they do (if they do) develop, it is really a matter of staying situationally aware of how the system is evolving, where the strongest storms are, where the best network of roads are and making sure I’m reporting any information that can be useful to the NWS office(s) and media outlets.

There are days where all the ingredients come together, the days where I get to see some great storm structure, enhance the warning processes with my reports, and it all happens over an open field or pasture where no damage occurs to life or property. If someone is only into chasing to see tornadoes, they are going to be dissapointed an awful lot of the time because despite what some may think, they are a rare occurrence unless you are willing to travel thousands of miles in pursuit.

3.  What’s the most exciting/scary/memorable storm that you have chased?

It took place on April 22, 2010, in southern Colorado. I was able to see four tornadoes, two of which occurred simultaneously over an open field. I helped the NWS Pueblo office verify and issue warnings throughout the day and I successfully streamed video and performed several on-air interviews from the field for KRDO throughout the day. The link (below) shows the first tornadoes of that day. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xf2Xv-UrA5E&feature=plcp

4. You teach wilderness survival as part of a UCCS class. How did the class come about and how did you become interested in wilderness survival?

The Freshman Seminar class we taught this fall was titled “Survivor.” It focused on skills for surviving in the wilderness, in disasters and on campus as a student. We talked a lot about the mindset of folks who survive disasters, why they survived and what we can do to enhance our own likelihood of surviving an emergency, a disaster or getting lost in the wilderness. The students learned some very primitive skills such as making cordage out of yucca and/or plastic bags, how to identify varying food sources, how to create fire and different types of primitive shelters, a bit of navigation and several other skills. We also focused on the risks we face every day, and how personal preparedness factors in to building a more resilient community on campus and in other communities. The campus survial portion focused on academic resources to help them as they work through their college careers.

I am not sure I have a great interest in wilderness survival specifically, but rather the overall survival mindset that I believe focuses on preparedness and prevention. I believe everyone should be prepared to respond to the risks they are likely to face in their day-to-day lives. Maybe someone doesn’t spend much time in the wilderness, but can they change the flat tire on their car? Are they trained to use the first aid kit they keep in their backpack? Do they know several different ways to get out of their apartment/classroom/office if there is a fire? How would they communicate with family and friends if their cell phone was unusable?

One of my students was driving on Interstate 25 and saw a car fly across the lanes and over a guard rail.  He stopped to make sure the occupants were OK, and did all the things he learned in class. He said he didn’t know if he would have stopped or known what to do if he hadn’t taken the class.

I also am an adviser for the student-run First Aid Survival Techniques (F.A.S.T.) club, and an authorized provider/instructor for a few campus folks who need first aid and/or CPR certifications as part of their jobs. I’m still getting immersed in my current role with emergency management, but I’m always looking for other ways I can support the mission of UCCS.

5. What are a person’s chances of survival if you don’t have training as opposed to if you do?

I think the most important characteristic a survivor has is the proper mindset. The person needs to know they will survive.  With this mindset, someone will aggressivly look for ways to apply experience, knowledge and skills to their current situation. That being said, I’m a strong supporter of being knowledgeable and trained before ever putting yourself in the situation where you might get in trouble.  For example, if you don’t have the knowledge, equipment and training to go backcountry skiing or snowboarding … don’t go until you do.

 

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