Failing emergency services

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Island experience with “Niko,” the February blizzard, was mixed. Reasonably early warning helped, and snow removal seemed to go well across the Island. But the storm’s cold temperatures and strong Northeast winds, predictably, also brought pervasive Island-wide power outages. Eversource estimates 8,000 of 20,000 Vineyard customers were without electricity (and therefore heat, water, and often, telephones) for at least some time during the storm.

It turns out, though, that predictability and preparedness don’t necessarily go hand in hand. As Barry Stringfellow reports this week (“February blizzard exposed disarray in island emergency management”), when it comes to coordination of emergency services, and shelters in particular, Island towns demonstrated a startling degree of confusion and lack of preparedness, coupled with communications failures ranging from unanswered phones and unresponsive voicemail systems to actively dispensing incorrect information about the availability and locations of shelter facilities.

There is no question that volunteers and emergency personnel, already full up with other vital duties, worked hard and long to mitigate the storm’s threat to individuals and families trapped without power. But despite the hard work of these volunteers on the ground, the absence of coordination was evident: Repeated efforts to discover the location of emergency shelter facilities came up empty — to our reporters, working calmly. Imagine what it was like for folks directly threatened during the storm’s worst.

We should demand that our towns fund, and ask the county to organize and update, a unified plan to deal with a full range of emergency possibilities — from a possible failure at the Plymouth nuclear power plant, to epidemics, to seasonal hurricanes and blizzard. The responsibility for implementation and ongoing communication strategy should be clear. And the town volunteers closest to the challenge know it, as Barry Stringfellow’s reporting confirms.

Matt Poole, the Edgartown health agent, observed, “We’re trying to do this on the backs of people who wear a bunch of hats or are volunteers, or both. Chuck Cotnoir at the county [Dukes County emergency manager] has done a ton of work over the years, pretty much for free. You need that steady hand, a paid professional … If we are not prepared for a sustained event, we’re going to wish we’d done more. It’s only a matter of time until we have our own Hurricane Sandy.”

There are barriers to this common-sense approach, notably the ultimate control (and Island-wide unaccountability) each town has over its own emergency response plan, and a resulting limitation on the county’s latitude. Scale and experience, of course, both make a hash of such constraints. The towns are too small to each provide proper shelter facilities economically. It’s even more of a stretch to imagine towns collaborating to achieve proper inter-agency coordination. During “Niko,” the phone number for Aquinnah’s emergency management contact reached a former director now living in Michigan, who nevertheless confirmed the availability of a shelter in Aquinnah. And the correct Aquinnah acting contact didn’t know that power was out in Aquinnah, because he lives in West Tisbury.

These aren’t instances of ineptitude or a lack of concern. As we do with all emergency services on the Island, we count on the seemingly boundless energy and purposefulness of the volunteer and professional first responders, who seem to always hang in and provide the services we need. But this challenge can’t be addressed one town at a time.

An obvious response would be a single shelter, reliably available, with a central location, equipped with a generator, food, and water. But that can’t be implemented without a new inter-Island agreement, whether or not it resides within the county government’s portfolio.

As John Christensen, West Tisbury emergency services director, observed, “The Island needs one person doing this full-time. The people doing it now are either volunteering or get a token salary. You can’t have a fire chief fighting fires and setting up a shelter during a major event.”

We agree. The Island needs a single point of responsibility for emergency services, to create and maintain a plan and to assure proper coordination and communication. Inability to get even one person or family to a shelter risks human lives. The cost, on an Island-wide basis, is marginal, given that the stakes couldn’t be higher.