Friday, October 13, 2006
Town leaders struggle to keep Carlisle safe
When Police Chief John Sullivan opened his e-mail inbox Tuesday morning, subject lines included "Homeland Security," "emergency training," "SWAT team organization." In fact, half his 20 messages were related to emergency preparedness. "It's pretty big," he says of the chunk that emergency tasks take out of his day. "But it's what we need to be doing."
First it was 9/11, then Hurricane Katrina. Last week it was school shootings. With all that is in the news, it is no wonder communities are under increasing pressure to be prepared for a range of emergencies. A variety of federal, state and regional organizations, including the Northeast Homeland Security Regional Advisory Council (NEHSRAC) the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), the Police Northeast Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) and Fire District 14, provide information, training support and, occasionally, grants. Dave Flannery, Fire Chief and administrator of the town emergency plan, appreciates the help. "Thanks to these organizations, we don't have to reinvent the wheel." But with the help comes a responsibility to devote resources to planning, training and providing emergency supplies and equipment.
Last year Selectman Doug Stevenson, a member of Carlisle's Local Emergency Preparedness Committee (LEPC), pointed to a few critical places Carlisle was falling short. These included training of local decision-makers, communication, both within the town and with outside emergency officials, and organization at the neighborhood level. Also on the critical list was a generator so the Carlisle School could be an effective emergency shelter.
The LEPC, consisting of the Town Administrator, Police and Fire Chiefs, DPW head, Carlisle School Superintendent, Carlisle School Business Manager, and representatives of the Board of Health and Council on Aging, has continued to meet quarterly. On most items significant progress has been made. But on the generator, the town is pretty much where it was a year ago — everyone agrees we should have one, but no one wants to pay for it.
School generator needs focus
Selectman Tim Hult admits the generator has been on his board's back burner. "We're talking potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars. We're reviewing it in the context of a million other town needs." He says it was discussed as part of the expansion of the Carlisle School, but the school's designation as a shelter is not part of the charter of the relevant committees.
As for the Board of Selectmen, Hult said,"This doesn't have immediate impact" and affordable housing and school projects are taking all the time. "I think this is an area we need to focus on a little bit more."
Smaller generator may help
Town Administrator Madonna McKenzie is currently pursuing a less expensive plan for a small generator for just the Corey Building that could be moved to Town Hall if the larger generator becomes part of an expanded school. She also notes the town has a contract with Belmont Springs to provide sufficient water to the school in an emergency.
Training, communications improved
A significant step forward was realized this summer as town emergency decision-makers, including the Town Administrator, Board of Selectmen, DPW, Board of Health and other critical staff, received two days of Homeland Security training. A year ago, the emergency plan was a mystery to many. Now each has had a chance to understand how a command post would operate under various scenarios (terrorist, flood, power outage) and to become familiar with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) "so we use the same acronyms," says McKenzie. In addition, Sullivan reports that all police and fire responders have received NIMS 700 and ICS 100 training, with command forces also receiving ICS 200 training.
Another important security improvement, reports Sullivan, is the addition of the NEMLC "bapern" channel to police radios, providing a common channel to communicate with other towns' emergency forces, and the programming of the radio frequencies of all surrounding NEMLC towns into Carlisle police radios. Sullivan jokes that now, "We may have better communications with other towns than with our own people," although station-to-cruiser communications have also been improved.
Sullivan also points to the importance of Carlisle's participation in NEMLC, a group of regional police departments who have agreed to share resources in the event of an emergency. Carlisle has committed one officer to be available for an emergency anywhere in the region, and "I could have fifty officers on site if need be," in a Carlisle emergency. In addition, NEMLEC offers specially trained teams for SWAT operations and for providing advice and public communication during a crisis.
Reverse 911 to be proposed
Although communications have improved externally, Flannery says communicating with citizens could be problematic in an emergency. What if a neighborhood needed to know about a toxic spill or suspicious activity? Local radio, CCTV and the town web site are designated for emergency information, but would require a citizen to be aware of an emergency, with power available. If the need were sufficient, the fire horn could be blown and fire trucks and police cruisers could be dispatched to use their public address systems.
But a better method is available. Reverse 911, now installed in many surrounding towns including Lincoln and Concord, allows the police department to send a recorded message to every phone in a specified area. It is similar to the Notify Quick system used by the Carlisle Schools with the difference that there is no need to enter phone numbers — all Verizon phone numbers are automatically called, even those that are unlisted. Cell phone and other numbers could be added for an additional cost. In Concord the system has been used to notify neighborhoods of gas leaks, power outages and prisoner escapes.
Flannery is currently interviewing other towns and researching systems. He says a Reverse 911 system could be had for about $40,000, and expects to make a proposal at Spring Town Meeting.
Neighborhoods need inclusion
This week the Board of Health takes an important step toward mobilizing the citizenry by forming the Carlisle Medical Reserve Corps (MRC). The MRC is an organization of community volunteers prepared to provide backup medical support in case of an emergency (A future Mosquito article will investigate the state of the town's medical emergency preparedness). But for other types of emergencies, identification of local resources and vulnerabilities is just beginning.
According to McKenzie, one of the newest state requirements is a plan for "continuity of operations (COOP)" if police, fire or other emergency personnel are unavailable. Who in the local community could help out? Although the requirement adds another task to the pile, McKenzie says "Going through the process, we realized people haven't thought that through. In that way, it's a very good thing" the town is forced to make a plan.
Currently, the police keep a list of senior citizens who might need assistance in an emergency. Hult, for one, would like to see neighborhood groups formed to provide backup, so if police were unavailable, neighbors would check on each other. Such neighborhood groups would also identify local resources such as generators and communications equipment. Ideally, a satellite phone would be available in each area, says Hult, noting that "we're so isolated out here communication could be critically important."
Flannery also would like more neighborhood participation in emergency planning, and points to the Carlisle Civil Defense groups formed in the 1940s to patrol and look for trouble. However, in the fire department, "we have our hands full with day-to-day emergencies. We need volunteers to organize this." The state provides information and support if local organizers can be found.
The fire department lists emergency resources, including how to prepare for an emergency at home, on the town web site at www.carlislema.gov. A Homeland Security grant has allowed the town to purchase 150 three-gallon containers to keep at the fire station, which has a generator, so water will be available to citizens. In addition, emergency cots and tents were purchased in case fire or police crews need to be housed at the stations.
Evacuation plan — where to go?
Finally, although there was general agreement that the state has done an admirable job encouraging local emergency preparedness, an apparent hole in the plan is where do people go in the case of evacuation? "That's a good question," says Flannery, noting each town and city has to define routes of exit, but not a destination. McKenzie says that Concord-Carlisle High School is a designated shelter available to Carlisle residents.
According to Peter Judge, Public Information Officer for MEMA, the Massachusetts arm of FEMA, designation of shelter in an evacuation "would depend on the event and would be determined at that time."
What about evacuees from Boston? Clearly much work has been done to ensure people could leave, as evidenced by signage throughout the city. Judge says in an evacuation, "most of those people go home and have no need of shelter." He says statistics from past emergencies indicate only 15 to 20% of evacuees will require shelter. Still, doesn't that potentially leave 100,000 people or more wandering around wondering where to go? Judge says a decision would be made where people could be housed and communicated over public media. And if they showed up at the Carlisle School, could we turn them away? "I guess not," says McKenzie.
[See related article, "Keeping the Carlisle School Safe".]
© 2006 The