Emergency management has limits, and trust is key

To the Editor:

I have followed with interest the recent articles and online comments on the issue of road closures during hurricane Earl. I have some comments.

Prior to leaving the Island in 2006, I was the emergency manager for West Tisbury. I currently work as an emergency manager for the federal government in Washington, DC. I hold a master’s degree in emergency management and am a certified emergency manager. I only mention this so readers understand my comments are based on professional experience and education.

The Times appears to have researched this issue well. Massachusetts law does not give a town the authority to impose a blanket of prohibition on the use of its roads by the public. Most towns take the position that general driving bans and particularly closure of state highways may only be instituted by the governor. The proper approach in the “extreme emergencies” that Peter Martell speaks of, as he should well know, would be to contact MEMA and request the governor include an addendum to the state’s emergency declaration for a driving ban in a specific area. However, I am fairly certain in this case the request would have been denied. The conditions did not rise to the level of “extreme emergency.”

Banning cars on streets and roads effectively removes the ability of the public to reach business establishments and prevents employees from going to work. There are cases in Massachusetts where businesses have sought compensation due to loss of business income secondary to towns closing roads. I don’t recall whether they prevailed, but perhaps some of the businesses that were closed would like to research that. It is one of the reasons that most towns prefer voluntary closures instead.

Ordering businesses to close is highly unusual. There does not seem to be any legal precedent. It would also be very difficult to enforce. Using the police as a tool to communicate a mandatory business closure is extreme and could possibly be seen as intimidating by some. When I discussed this issue with colleagues, no one can recall other areas taking such dramatic and unwarranted actions as business closures.

Emergency managers in Massachusetts and in most other states have little or no authority to mandate bans or closures. City mayors, selectmen, police chiefs, fire chiefs, and health agents may exercise certain authorities in specific situations but emergency managers usually only provide guidance and coordination. Emergency managers commonly receive and disseminate information and/or orders from the governor or other state authorities when issued. The rare exception would be if a town passed a by-law granting additional authority. To my knowledge no Island towns have done this.

An emergency manager’s effectiveness comes from forging relationships, demonstrating competency and knowledge, and fostering trust with local businesses, the public, and town leadership. Lying to the public, as Mr. Martell admitted in the last article (Sept. 8, “In Earl’s aftermath, a storm of controversy”), is certainly not a good way to foster trust with anyone and will likely negatively affect the public’s decision to follow emergency guidance in the future.

Judith Sibert, MA, CEMAlexandria, VA