Eva Murray: A day of planning and practicing in preparation for major storms
Acknowledging that every storm brings its own headaches and that nobody has a "crystal ball," a municipality can still lessen the impact of extreme weather on its residents through planning and preparation.
On Wednesday, March 2, the Knox County Emergency Management Agency conducted a Peninsular Towns Major Winter Storm Exercise at its office in Rockland. The towns of South Thomaston, Cushing, St. George and Friendship sent select board members, local emergency managers, snowplow drivers and public works directors, firefighters and emergency medical technicians and other responders to participate in the tabletop exercise, where they worked through a simulation of a severe weather event.
In addition to vested members of the four participating towns, representatives from Central Maine Power and FairPoint Communications, American Red Cross, the Knox County Regional Communications (Knox County emergency dispatchers,) the Knox County Sheriff's Department and the Maine Forest Service were also there to join in.
Town leaders were encouraged to consider issues like: What has been problematic in the past, and is it likely to happen again? Where are known problem areas or "weak spots?" How best can word get around to citizens about available help, road closures, etc.? In what capacities are towns and communities often short-handed?
By virtue of their geography, portions of each of the four participating communities depend upon small bridges or single roads. Large snowdrifts, downed trees or power lines, or flooding could temporarily cut off access, making a peninsula community seem a lot like an island for all practical purposes.
As the group from each town assembled around a table in the EMA’s large meeting room, participants worked through a timeline representing the lead-up to the storm, the worst of the weather, and the aftermath and cleanup. Participants were presented with developing scenarios that might be expected in the worst of a Maine winter: roads blocked by fallen trees, widespread power outages, multiple feet of snow and inches of ice, exhausted local resources, and isolated citizens, especially the elderly. Add to those problems there could be the occasional medical emergency, structure fire, a disabled plow truck, or even an impending birth in the middle of the storm, requiring responders to scramble as best they could while transportation options were already severely diminished.
Each town was supplied with a high-quality, large-format wall map of their town, produced by EMA officials and staff using satellite imagery.
Responders and local officials discussed issues that would impact local readiness and response, such as the availability and location of snowplows and other heavy equipment within their town, and which businesses and private citizens might be able to help out the municipality; the need for generators; backup communication options such as amateur radio; considerations for opening warming centers and the possible need for emergency sheltering; the identification and location of emergency medical technicians who live within the town; and whether and where available fuel supplies to run trucks, generators, and public facilities existed. Conversation often came back around to the need for cooperation among towns and the recognition that no small town stands alone.
Knox County Emergency Management Director Ray Sisk asked the group, "What can we do together to improve our readiness for a storm like this?"
Of course, everybody agreed, there is no way to anticipate every circumstance and make a plan for every contingency. Small towns depend on small groups of people, many of whom are volunteer responders or contracted commercial plow operators. Still, whatever planning town and agency leaders do will presumably make a difference.
Knox County Regional Communications Director Linwood Lothrop described the need to support the dispatchers and think about their families, as dispatchers are likely to have to stay at work for days at a time in such an event, and their families are going to have to manage the storm without that individual being home to help. Lothrop also mentioned how prior to any heavy weather, some routine steps are taken, including making sure all communication tower site generators are topped up with fuel. Knox County also maintains a relationship with area ham radio operators through nationwide amateur radio emergency volunteer associations such as Amateur Radio Emergency Service and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service. Knox County is ready to work together with Waldo and Lincoln counties, Lothrop said, as any of them may need to assist, relay messages for or substitute for each other to support communications.
In a severe weather situation, members of a community's Public Works Department, similar agencies and contractors become essential to the emergency operations.
Lothrop said, "If I've got a call to a structure fire on a road that's under 2-feet of snow, I need to get a plow truck there right now."
All acknowledged how Public Works should be considered a component of Public Safety.
Knox County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Tim Carroll described how during an extreme weather event, his deputies stay ready to be called out, even if they are not scheduled for duty. Better to have responders at home and ready to go where needed, he said, than to have a few people out just riding the roads.
Sometimes, dealing with a small town has its advantages, and emergency response may be one of those examples. Cheryl Waterman, a member of the South Thomaston Select Board, talked about how community members know each other and often know who might have heavy equipment, generators, chainsaws, etc.
Friendship Emergency Management Director Phil Bramhall told how their town had a pretty good list of elderly and other folks who would want to be checked on. Friendship also has a community hall that has worked very well in the past as a warming center. In one of the big storms in 2015, 125 people made use of the shelter at the Hahn Center, not so much to sleep as to gather, to make a hot meal, charge their phones, get water and check in with one another.
Representatives from the town of St. George talked about their community’s paramedicine program, and how their EMS responders have a good sense from prior experience of who might need checking on during a storm. St. George also had several ham radio operators at the exercise, ready to assist with communications.
The folks from Cushing described having an email list of residents, useful for disseminating information before the power goes out, and mentioned working to keep up a snowmobile list as well. Several towns talked about local "telephone trees," or systems of "winter buddies" where somebody who identifies as likely to need help is paired with a volunteer, either a member of the local EMS service or an able neighbor.
The participating municipal leaders were tasked with identifying things each town does well, as well as some of the challenges. Many offered kudos to their plow drivers, dedicated and committed operators who work very long days and nights when the weather gets rough. The core group of responders in any town can be small, though — sometimes too small — and, as I noticed just by looking around the room, may not be a young group anymore.
In a city or any very large community, it is easy for citizens to think of plow drivers, dispatchers, emergency responders, utility workers and city management as a distant, abstract "them," somehow obligated to do the impossible and to manage in 3-feet of snow with the same speed and efficiency as they might on a fine spring day. Of course, that isn't the real world, and in a small town, when the firefighters and plow drivers and linemen and shelter volunteers are one's neighbors, we (hopefully) understand. Every one of those people out in the weather has a home as well, probably one as cold and dark as your own. Many of them have families who are worrying.
At one point during the evening, somebody's emergency pager off, and the whole room went quiet; many at the exercise were or have been some sort of emergency responder. As it turned out, nobody had to go running out the door and respond, but everyone stood by for a minute to hear the voice of the dispatcher.
Overheard in the room:
— "...those guys never call dispatch, they just call Richard, and then he has to organize the whole thing ..."
— "Where does the power come in from on that road? Does it come from Rockland or the other way...?"
— "If there was a storm could those boats be used to move people?" "Depends on the wind, really, plus a lot of guys would have hauled out already if they had enough warning about the storm..."
— One of the South Thomaston participants made the observation that "Whether its official or unofficial, we tend to take care of one another."
The weather this week is expected to be mild, but winter is not necessarily over. Here is some general advice when potentially rough weather is headed your way:
• Keep a corded telephone in your home, and don't just rely on cordless phones as they also require electricity. An old-fashioned curly-wired phone will continue to run for some time in a power outage as the local telephone switch-house will normally have a generator and the regular phone system will stay up for hours. Remember, cell phones will probably not work in an extended incident for various reasons, from electricity out at the tower, to ice damage to antennas, to system overload.
• If there is a fire hydrant near your home, shovel it out if you can.
• Get the advice of an electrician before you hook up that new generator. You absolutely need a proper transfer switch. Improper connection can allow a back-feed of electricity onto system power lines, which is obviously a huge danger to utility workers clearing or repairing those supposedly "dead" wires.
• Pay attention to weather forecasts, and get ready, but don't over-react. It's not really all about running to the supermarket and buying them out of bread and batteries, not to mention beer and chips (the spare batteries are something you should already have on hand anyway). But you might want to run off some drinking and flush water ahead of time (you might fill the bathtub,) and if you'll want to use your generator, don't wait until the last minute to get fuel. Remember, too, that generators must only be run outdoors. Every year people die of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by operating a generator in an attached garage.
• If you can get around safely, whether it's on foot, on snowshoes, by snow machine or whatever, check on your less mobile or elderly neighbors. If you have, for example, wood heat and your neighbor has only electric heat, invite them over. This is no time for "every man for himself."
• If you have resources and want to offer help, contact your town office or the local or county emergency management director; do not go out and just "ride around," as the fewer drivers on the roads, the better.
• And, of course, keep well away from downed power lines.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus
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