Regional emergency planning steps forward, without Oak Bluffs

Hurricane Sandy provided one example of the need for regional cooperation during a natural emergency. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

State officials this week approved start-up certification for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional Emergency Planning Committee, an important step toward organizing a regional response to hurricane threats and other emergencies. The committee immediately took steps to qualify for final certification, a status that will allow Island communities to receive state funds and become eligible for emergency planning grants, among other benefits.

“I would like to commend the Martha’s Vineyard regional emergency planning committee for their hard work and dedication,” said Doug Forbes, of the Massachusetts Emergency Planning Agency (MEMA). “Thanks to their efforts, Martha’s Vineyard is a stronger and safer place in which to live and work.”

Aquinnah, Chilmark, Edgartown, Tisbury, and West Tisbury are part of the committee, but Oak Bluffs has resisted the approach to regional planning, during more than a year of organizational efforts.

Without participation from Oak Bluffs, local officials say emergency planning is more difficult. The Martha’s Vineyard Regional Hospital and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, two facilities that would be critical in an emergency, are both in Oak Bluffs.

“They are regional assets, so it does complicate it,” said John Christensen, emergency planning director for West Tisbury and chairman of the regional committee. “If we did use those regional assets, Oak Bluffs can’t handle that by themselves. If it’s a regional incident, we have to put our regional resources together.”

Oak Bluffs emergency management director Peter Martell has attended previous organizational meetings and argued forcefully against the group’s approach. He did not attend a May 24 meeting of the committee, where Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency officials met with representatives of the five towns, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and other organizations with a role in emergency planning.

Walter Vail, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen said he has urged Mr. Martell to represent Oak Bluffs at future regional emergency planning committee meetings.

“He knows he can’t do these things on his own,” Mr. Vail said. “He has a good emergency management plan, which we are spending a lot of time on. He has a specific directive from me that he cannot do this alone, and he needs to spend more time working with the emergency management directors from other towns and making sure he’s well coordinated.”

Planning ahead

The committee has already taken some steps to better coordinate emergency response to hurricanes and other disasters. At the direction of the committee, Dukes County emergency management coordinator Chuck Coitnoir explored ways to get information to visitors and summer residents, who may not receive warnings from the Island’s Code Red system, which delivers recorded telephone messages during emergencies.

He demonstrated a free mobile phone application that can deliver text messages from Island emergency management directors, the National Weather Service, and MEMA. It is based on the geographical location of the device, so Island visitors with mobile phones, tablets, or laptop computers, would receive the same messages, in text form, that residents get by phone.

Dukes County Commissioners approved $4,000 in funding for the system last week, to cover a contract with the private firm that provides the service, and advertising on Steamship Authority ferries and at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional Airport to educate visitors about the service.

The committee appointed a sub-committee to form a process for approving and sending emergency text messages, as well as explore the Ping4 system’s ability to deliver text messages to individual towns, and even individual neighborhoods, if needed. Current plans call only for county-wide text communication.

Also at the direction of the regional planning committee, Mr. Coitner has begun organizing a web-based joint information center where residents can get up-to-date information about emergency shelters, evacuations, and other information.

Response criticized

Island officials were criticized for a lack of regional coordination in their response to recent hurricanes, leaving some residents with conflicting and sometimes confusing information. Formation of a regional emergency planning committee was, in part, a response to that criticism.

A 1986 federal law requires every community to establish a local emergency planning committee, or join with others to form a regional committee. The law was intended to make sure communities have a plan to deal with a hazardous materials emergency, such as a chemical spill. But over the years, committees have become a foundation for planning for other emergencies, including hurricanes and blizzards. With a relatively small amount of hazardous materials on the Island, organizers of the Martha’s Vineyard committee have focused mostly on weather emergencies in regional planning.

Officials from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) visited the Island in 2010 for an informational meeting.

They strongly encouraged local emergency management directors to follow a regional approach. Nearly all of the communities in central and western Massachusetts have organized regional committees, mostly based within county boundaries. All 17 Cape Cod towns have formed a regional committee, which plans and executes emergency response to natural disasters.

At the 2010 organization meeting, state and federal officials said a regional approach will be essential when allocating resources such as food, water, and portable shelters shipped to the Island in an emergency.