Friday, September 23, 2005
Is Carlisle prepared for disaster?
by Cecile SandwenEven though far from the bayou, we in Carlisle have struggled to understand the devastation of New Orleans. We all know that failures in coordination, communication, and response led to many more deaths than necessary.
No one wants to think about the aftermath of a disaster in our own hometown. We watch scenes of wreckage and upheaval with some detachment, secretly convinced that nothing could happen here. But could it? According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) web site, Massachusetts has survived eighteen major disasters over the past 52 years, including a tornado that tore through Worcester and passed south of Carlisle in June of 1953, claiming 94 lives.
With the recent hurricane and the commemoration of 9/11, we are again reminded that preparedness is more important than ever. Is Carlisle ready to take on an emergency, or would we be caught flat-footed?
Emergency plan looks at risks, response
Carlisle's Emergency Management Plan is a document required by state law. It looks at preparation, response, and recovery mechanisms. Recently updated by Fire Chief David Flannery, the plan defines some of the risks Carlisle might face. Most, such as terrorism, riot, hazmat, highway, or air disaster are assigned a "low" risk. The highest risk assessment is associated with flooding from a hurricane or other storm because "40% of the land mass is low-lying." The risk of forest fire loss is moderately-high and earthquake, severe storm and tornado are in the low to moderate range.
In the aftermath of Katrina, Selectman Doug Stevenson decided to review the document in detail and concluded, "There's a lot more in place than people realize." Emergency operation centers at the police and fire stations and shelter at the Carlisle School are designated. An organization chart of decision-makers and their responsibilities is included. There are guidelines for handling various types of emergencies with resources and contacts for requesting assistance.
Not ready to spring into action
But Stevenson says there is much more to be done. If a disaster occurred today, "the key decision-makers would not be ready to spring into action." He adds, "Shelter is one area where we are weaker than we should be." The school currently can offer nothing more than "a roof over your head without food or water." There is no generator; a critical fault if electricity is lost in the community, particularly as well water would be unavailable. The lack of a generator also makes the storage of food, medicines and vaccines problematic.
Applying the lessons of Katrina, two other areas of weakness in Carlisle's readiness are communications systems and plan awareness. Stevenson says the town needs better communications between emergency workers, with state emergency organizations, and with townspeople. In addition, some key players are unfamiliar with the emergency plan, either because they have never seen it (the document is confidential due to the inclusion of information from Homeland Security) or because they have not looked at it in some time. Stevenson says he will push forward with recommendations for addressing these issues.
Preparedness committee looking to future
Carlisle's Local Emergency Preparedness Committee has been meeting for the past several months to oversee the emergency plan, last updated in 2004, and to propose improvements to town readiness. The committee consists of the town administrator, police and fire chiefs, DPW head, Carlisle School superintendent, Carlisle School financial manager, and representatives of the Board of Health and Council on Aging. Selectman Stevenson has recently accepted an invitation to join.
Town Administrator Madonna McKenzie points to the committee's progress in addressing some of the weaknesses of the current plan. In the area of communications, for example, a grant has been received to provide a back-up system for police communications should the existing system be disabled. Under consideration are satellite phones for each department in case of the loss of electricity, phone, and cell phone communications. Also being investigated is an expansion of the Carlisle School's automatic phone calling system, which now allows the school to reach all parents in emergencies, and to allow the police to reach all citizens.
Grants are being pursued for the school generator, which, in the absence of financial assistance, would cost the town $200,000. Once a generator is available, sufficient emergency supplies can be stored at the school to provide for a few days occupation. Medicines and vaccines can also be stored against the possibility of epidemic or bio-terrorism. Generators are currently in place at the police and fire stations.
Training and information from FEMA regarding disaster response are being incorporated into the emergency plan with the goal of providing realistic scenarios for responders to work through. McKenzie says these scenarios are the next step in advancing readiness. Other resources to be tapped include the Northeast Homeland Security Regional Advisory Council (NEHSRAC) and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council which look at regional responses. Although the homeland security apparatus is narrowly focused on surviving terrorist activity, McKenzie notes, "The information can be used in any disaster. The response is similar in all instances."
Perhaps one of the most important factors in surviving a long-term disaster is preparedness in the home. Yet how many of us have an emergency supplies kit? And if we have one, have we replaced the canned food in the past five years? Police Chief Galvin advises residents to visit the NEHSRAC web site for tips on preparing for an emergency (www.securityinknowledge.org — see sidebar).
Galvin notes that while police staffing is not a problem on a day-to-day basis, past emergencies have brought with them the inability to call in additional police due to impassable roads. A minimum force of a dispatcher and two officers may have to handle it all. "We'll work around the clock and set up cots in the station to catch sleep when we can." While the department keeps a list of citizens at risk in an emergency, neighbors that check on each other are an important second line of defense.
In 1999, Carlisle formed a Y2KCommunity Group in preparation for a possible turn-of-the-century emergency. Says Paul Hackbarth, who was a member, "Our greatest push was neighborhood involvement." Each neighborhood was encouraged to have a barbecue and draw up a list of who had what resources and to identify people at risk. Is it time to revive these neighborhood barbecues?
Much to do and little to do it with
While it is very encouraging that the town has an active emergency review committee and a detailed emergency plan, much still needs to be done. McKenzie says the town receives only $12,000 per year in Homeland Security funds, and while some additional grants may be obtained, a future Town Meeting will likely be asked to consider additional funding for disaster readiness.
So besides voting to fund a generator at the school, what can we do to be ready? According to the NEHSRAC website, we each can:
• Develop a family emergency plan
• Get to know our neighbors
• Create an emergency supply kit
• Carry emergency contact numbers at all times
• Store an emergency numbering on our cell phones
• Know how to shelter in place and how to turn off utilities
• Keep informed and know our surroundings.
An open Selectmen's meeting on Tuesday, September 27 will review the
Emergency Management Plan. Also, a packet of emergency information from
NEHSRAC will be available soon. For more information, watch the Mosquito
or visit: www.securityinknowledge.org
© 2005 The