Goals, frustrations and pride were on the minds of Emergency Management Director Michael Handler and Fire Chief Jack Hennessey when they spoke with the Advertiser recently.
Only a week after a tornado set down in town, the two men discussed actions to be taken in the event of crisis, as they sat in the Emergency Operation Center [EOC] in the New Canaan Police headquarters on Wednesday Oct. 10.
The room was set up with 16 computers as it would be during a crisis, since a meeting had just been held with many of the representatives who would be in the room in an extreme weather event or other crisis.
The participants could include the fire department, public works, health department, tree warden, school district, police, Eversource, other Town officials, and more. Not all of the chairs would be filled, depending on the nature of the emergency.
During an emergency, a 10-person phone bank would also be set up to field calls from concerned residents. Since the national tragedy of 911, every town is required to have an emergency center.
One of the many times Handler expressed pride in the town, he said, “We are very fortunate to have the breadth and depth of knowledge in this room.”
Handler shared a list of eight goals for emergency preparedness in New Canaan that was part of the presentation for the meeting. The list included, five aspirations which had been achieved and three that are still outstanding.
The achieved goals include hazard mapping, a Humvee response vehicle and reverse 911 which allows the town to call residents in case of an emergency. There are three initiatives that have not been accomplished that include cell tower coverage, a town-owned shelter and a ‘hardened’ or underground electrical infrastructure.
New Canaan officials met in the Emergency Operations Center at the police department on Friday for a briefing on Hurricane Sandy.
Handler is optimistic about improving emergency communication with better cell tower coverage. “The First Selectmen has made it a mission, rightly so, to improve cell service in town,” he said.
He said too many calls get dropped around town because of poor cell service. “This has been an ongoing issue since I moved here 20 years ago and it really hasn’t gotten materially better in 20 years.” He added, We burn a lot calories talking about this issue; we’ve got to start actually doing something about it.”
Shelter in the storm
A shelter for residents in an emergency is expected to be operational by 2019. The town has a small shelter at Lapham Center that could fit 30 people, but Handler hopes to get a larger shelter at New Canaan High School up and operating. “We are working on a micro-grid program that should be operational in 2019,” he said. Instead of spending a million dollars on a generator for the high school, he expects that the high school shelter will be powered by a micro-grid, or a localized electricity source that can function autonomously.
“Because we are doing a micro-grid for the area, it will incorporate the school and that will be a generated facility once it’s done. We will be off the traditional power grid,” he said. He said the micro-grid expense is in the budget for 2019.
Hennessey added, that “historically the people in New Canaan don’t need shelters because they are self-sufficient because they have generators and family members to stay with in case of a storm.”
Handler is not optimistic about a third unfinished goal, which is burying the electrical infrastructure. “It is never going to happen in our lifetime,” because the town looked at estimates to put the wires underground, and “it is exorbitant,” he said.
It is unfortunate since “If the town were to have a storm like Sandy or Irene, we have out-of-state crews from Kansas literally building our infrastructure every single time, again,” said Handler.
Hennessey said, “We are told that if a Category 3 hurricane ever hit Connecticut we would be in the dark for six months.”
Both Handler and Hennessey expressed frustration over people removing caution tape or barricades erected to keep people from driving down a road because of a threat such as downed electrical wires in a storm. “We go to great lengths to safely identify, map and protect hazards and we found that we were having to do that multiple times,” said Handler.
“We have limited resources in town,” he said. “People should recognize that it is dangerous work” and “we are exposing our people to risks” and “hazards multiple times when people move caution tape or barricades, he added.
“Adults are modeling for children’s behavior and if children see adults moving caution tape what is the next generation going to do? He added, “we have an obligation to set a good example.”
However, “I imagine it is far worse in other communities,” he said.
Handler is frustrated with the length of time it takes for the Eversource workers to get to town to start cleaning up the electrical infrastructure after a storm, especially since it can impede progress in removing trees from roadways.
“We have been asking Eversource to pre-stage one utility crew, at least, prior to a storm and we can get a lot of stuff done 24 hours after the storm,” which he would prefer to “waiting three days to get one crew,” said Handler.
Hennessey said, “People have to be self sufficient for three days because nobody is coming.”
Eversource crews “come from the midwest and they can’t get here because the roads are closed,” he added.
Although New Canaan’s public works department is very efficient, workers can only clear trees that are not entangled in electrical wires, which is why the town waits for Eversource workers, Handler explained.
Handler said after a storm he worries the most about having the ability to get an ambulance to every home in town.
Handler’s insights were not all bleak. “Most communities are frustrated with the lack of cooperation between the departments, but “everyone pretty much buys into the efforts we put forward within their community.” He listed a wide span of organizations such as schools, grocery stores, town officials, the YMCA, the Waveny Center, and more.
Every community gets ‘spontaneous volunteers,’ but other towns turn them away because It takes a lot to train them to be helpful.
“But, we are very fortunate to have really good people to train people in town,” Handler said. New
Caption to above picture: Canaan Fire Department Assistant Chief Jack Hennessey — Dave Stewart photo
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