Martha’s Vineyard moves toward regional emergency planning

Oak Bluffs officials closed Sea View Avenue during Hurricane Irene due to flooding. — File photo by Steve Myrick

Five Island towns, as well as the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), have agreed to form a Regional Emergency Management Committee to better coordinate their planning for hurricanes, blizzards, hazardous waste spills, and other emergencies.

Only Oak Bluffs has not signed a letter committing to the regional framework. Oak Bluffs emergency management director Peter Martell opposes the concept.

“The committee cannot order another town to do anything it doesn’t wish to do, so what’s the point?” Mr. Martell said this week. “It’s just another layer of stuff we’ve got to deal with. It’s got no value to me. They don’t have a clue what they’ve committed to.”

Organizers said they will move forward with the regional committee without Oak Bluffs, perhaps as soon as next month.

“I think once we get the framework nailed down, we can work from there,” Edgartown emergency planning director and fire chief Peter Shemeth said. “If I need something, I know who has it. It’s not just fire equipment; it could be generators, anything. It would be another useful tool. It would help us pull together a little bit more.”

West Tisbury emergency management director John Christensen is an advocate of a regional planning committee. He acknowledged it will be a challenge to take a more regional view of emergency planning, when local towns have often taken the opposite approach.

“Without having a crystal ball, and seeing all the advantages, I just know having people talking earlier helps,” Mr. Christensen said. “I may open some land mines, people trying to protect their turf. It’s just planning, it’s not taking over anybody’s anything. It’s just planning, and it’s Island-wide.”

Sounds like a plan

Regional Emergency Planning Committees (REPC) are an outgrowth of 1986 federal law that mandates communities set up either a local or a regional group to deal with the threat of hazardous materials. Over the years the regional committee framework has evolved into a foundation for other emergency planning, including weather emergencies like hurricanes or flooding.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) encourages a regional approach. The agency provides extensive administrative and organizational support to help establish a regional committee. Last fall, following Hurricane Earl, federal and state emergency planners came to the Island to meet with local emergency management directors.

MEMA has helped organize thirteen regional committees across the state, including Barnstable County REPC, which includes all Cape Cod towns and Nantucket.

Sean O’Brien, a health department official for Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment, has been coordinator of the REPC since its start in 2002.

He said the committee’s function is to supplement and support local emergency management directors.

“The towns are in charge of this committee, we work for the towns,” Mr. O’brien said. “One of the first things we saw was we had 31 shelters in Barnstable County. We just do not have the volunteers to handle that.” He said the REPC put together a regional network of six shelters, which was activated for Hurricane Earl last fall, several snowstorms this past winter, and more recently, for Hurricane Irene.

In an emergency the REPC sets up a multi-agency coordination center, looking at the larger needs of the entire region. “That is a resource request point,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We can look and see what resources we may need to bring down to the Cape.”

Plan problem

As an example of planning inefficiency, Mr. Christenson cites the effort to prepare for a pandemic, such as H1N1 flu, or other contagious diseases.

Island health agents from each town worked for three years on a state-mandated plan to handle a pandemic. When they presented the final plan to town officials, problems were immediately apparent. Oak Bluffs police quickly realized that using the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School as an inoculation center would present insurmountable traffic and logistical problems during the summer months, when more than 50,000 people might need to be inoculated in two days. The health agents had to go back to the drawing boards.

Mr. Christensen said a regional emergency planning committee would have 13 different disciplines, including emergency medical services, fire departments, police, public utilities, and transportation officials. The committee would also include a member of the public.

“The idea is to avoid working in silos, each discipline making its own plan,” Mr. Christensen said. “Everyone gets in the room and talks.”

Mr. Martell said Oak Bluffs’ needs in an emergency are different than other Island towns’.

“Oak Bluffs has plans to deal with a lot of different things, the Steamship Authority, the high school, the hospital,” Mr. Martell said. “It’s going to be very difficult to agree.

Seeing Code Red

Emergency management directors and other town officials faced criticism last year, and again this year, about the Code Red emergency messaging system, which sends recorded messages and email to Island residents.

During Hurricane Earl, Island residents received mixed messages through Code Red. Once the storm hit the Island, by then downgraded to a tropical storm, there was little or no coordination among towns.

Mr. Christensen designed an on-line survey to gauge how Island residents viewed Code Red communications about the storm.

While it is not a scientific survey, and sampled a small number of people, it did give emergency planners some information about the effectiveness of the system, and the way Island residents want it to be used.

Mr. Christensen was concerned that the underlying database of Island addresses is sometimes inaccurate. Several emergency management directors have heard of cases where a message intended to go to only one town, went to some residents of other towns.

In the survey open to the entire Island, one of 21 responders said they received a Code Red message intended for residents of another town.

In a separate survey of only West Tisbury residents, three of 15 responders said they got a message from towns other than their home town.

In general, the surveys showed a majority of people thought the information in the messages they received was useful, and want to get future messages.

“I think that with fine tuning, we’re doing what we ought to be doing,” Mr. Christensen said. “Between the [survey] comments and other outside comments, we’re getting pretty close to the right level of message. People want it for emergencies, they don’t want it for non-emergencies.”

Sounding off

In addition to the survey questions, Mr. Christensen invited respondents to add comments about their experience with Code Red during Hurricane Irene.

“I feel as though it is very informative and appreciate the updates and info,” wrote one responder.

Others had widely differing views on how the system should be used. A week before Hurricane Irene, the Oak Bluffs police department sent a message with information about the annual fireworks display to the entire Island. Police chief Erik Blake said the Code Red message eliminated hundreds of calls to his department, which had tied up resources in previous years. But the message irritated some people, including some who took the survey.

“Oak Bluffs’ use of the system for fireworks parking was completely inappropriate. The message I received from West Tisbury today was very pertinent and appropriate,” wrote one survey responder.

“Use it for emergencies only — not fireworks stuff or things about hurricanes we already know,” wrote another responder.

Several responders called for a more regional approach to emergency communications.

“More effort should go into getting the towns to work together,” wrote one responder. “Combined resources make more sense than each town ‘going it alone.’ The petty political nonsense needs to be eliminated.”

“For Island-wide emergencies, I believe we need a more unified message,” wrote another survey responder. “Just because I live in Edgartown doesn’t mean I don’t need to know about a flooding situation in Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven before I run into it.”

“Update during storms,” wrote another Island resident. “Should have advised that Seaview Avenue was flooded and closed.”