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Storm lessons: Communications and coordination changes since last year

One year ago this week, dozens of Weston roads were closed, basements were flooded, more than 90% of the town was without power, there were lines for ice and bottled water, and for the first time, shelters were open in Weston and people were taking advantage of them.

Tropical Storm Irene had come to town.

The storm hit on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011. It was followed two months later by another unusual storm, a nor’easter that dropped inches of heavy, wet snow on trees still filled with leaves — trees that in turn came down on power lines — in late October.

Town and state officials have spent much of the year since examining how response to the emergency could have been different — improved — and there are two major areas: communication and coordination.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” said Weston First Selectman Gayle Weinstein earlier this week. It took a lot of learning the hard way, but “I’m very happy with everything we now have in place,” she said.

The town has expanded the reach of its Code Red alert system, and made a concerted effort to increase the number of residents who take advantage of the free service.

Ms. Weinstein estimated there are between 4,000 and 5,000 phone numbers that can be automatically called or texted in an emergency. She urged residents who have not signed up to do so now by going to the town website (westonct.gov) or coming to town hall for assistance.

Tropical Storm/Hurricane Isaac has been an eerie Katrina-anniversary reminder of Mother Nature’s destructive powers as it makes its way to the Gulf Coast this week — and a reminder that hurricane season is well underway. Now is the time to make sure one is as prepared as possible, Ms. Weinstein said — before there is another emergency.

To that end, the state Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (DEMHS) coordinated a four-day emergency preparedness drill this summer.

The governor’s office said this week the drill was designed to improve communication between the state’s utility companies and state and local governments during an emergency or other natural disaster. The 165 participating municipalities and tribal nations tested a number of new preparedness structures, policies, and protocols that were put in place after the two 2011 storms including:

• Improving communications for road clearing and utility restoration: Utility company crews worked with participating towns’ public works crews to execute a new “Make Safe” protocol that will enhance road clearance processes and communication.

• Activating local emergency operations centers (EOC): All participating towns had key local officials and leaders meet at their local EOC to simulate preparedness, response, and recovery planning.

• Establishing coordinated emergency shelters: Municipalities will exercise five multi-jurisdictional shelters (one in each DEMHS region) across the state in an effort to test sheltering capabilities.

“We cannot control what Mother Nature throws at us, so we must always look to improve the way we respond to these emergencies,” said Gov. Dannel Malloy in a release. “The more we work together, improve communication and practice our response, the more we can limit the impact of disasters and get aid where it is needed quickly and expediently.”

CL&P

Much criticism has been leveled at Connecticut Light & Power’s response to the August storm — and another that followed just two months later — and the utility has been trying to redeem its image.

“We have not been sitting still,” utility spokesman Mitch Gross said when asked what steps CL&P has been taking to improve its emergency response.

“We’ve basically done wholesale revisions to our emergency response and preparedness plan and procedures in general so they cover significantly large events,” he said.

He said the utility has worked on improving communication with towns. “The town liaison program has gone through a number of adjustments, increased training, implementation of software programs to deliver higher quality information to town officials,” Mr. Gross said.

“Communication and coordination are the keys to all of this. We will be able to deliver that information to the towns and the customers. We’re able to communicate with the towns and state agencies so we are all in step.”

Ms. Weinstein said the new liaison program was tested during the statewide tabletop emergency drill the town participated in last month. “That was very helpful, to see how everything fits together,” Ms. Weinstein said.

She said since the storms last year, CL&P has added GPS to its trucks, which the liaisons can use to track the trucks’ exact locations, which should prove very helpful.

However, Ms. Weinstein said, “at the end of the day, you can have all the fancy equipment in the world, but you have to get the crews into place where they’re most needed.”

Mr. Gross said CL&P’s improved communication extends to coordination with out-of-state crews that come to help during an emergency. There had been considerable criticism of outside crews having to waste time waiting for instructions.

“We are also working with the University of Connecticut on software that would give us enhanced weather forecasting capabilities so we would be better able to predict damage to our system. That’s underway,” Mr. Gross said. “We are also working with the Connecticut American Red Cross on a public education campaign. You will see us all over the state.”

Trees

CL&P has been spotted in town this summer trimming trees, a project that will continue through the end of the year. Trees were the main cause of power outages during Irene, Mr. Gross said.

“…[W]e take our responsibility to maintain vegetation near power lines very seriously, so we’ve also significantly expanded our tree-trimming program … [G]oing forward, we will continue to be diligent about pruning trees as needed to ensure the reliable delivery of electricity,” Mr. Gross said.

The utility still, however, must get permission of property owners before trimming or cutting any trees. Whether the property is owned by individuals, the town, the state or someone else, that restriction has not changed.

CERT

Weston’s Community Emergency Response Team, known as CERT, is also available now to help in emergency situations.

There are about six certified CERT members (“and we’re always looking for more,” Ms. Weinstein said), but others are available in the region should more help be needed.

Among the many duties for which they are trained, the CERT members are able to do things like manage road closures, which can free up police officers to take care of public safety issues. They are also able to help man shelters and distribute food, water, or first aid.

In addition to the emergency response team, since last year’s storms, the all-volunteer Weston Community Service Coalition (wcscct.net) mobilized to put in place a Neighborhood Block Captain program to help improve communication and coordination between residents and officials. About 100 people have volunteered to help relay the needs of their neighborhood to officials and vice versa in case of an emergency.

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