EOC not activated after storm
Published 1:04 am, Thursday, March 25, 2010
Darien did not open its Emergency Operation Center during the storm that swept through town on Saturday, March 13, or the following days.
"We did a partial activation, which basically boils down to the emergency services being involved," said Darien's Emergency Management Director, Marc McEwan. "We did not call in town staff members to staff the EOC, which is when you basically swing into full operation."
Had it been fully opened, the EOC would have been located at the police department, with town department heads and other officials working in one room to respond to the emergency, according to McEwan.
"Everyone gets e-mail, everyone's got cell phones. There's no reason to stick everyone in a room and lock them there for seven days," he said. "I know that's confusing for most, but a lot of times when the situation warrants it, you would rather be on the ground running than stuck in a locker room so to speak, because essentially, we were all able to communicate throughout the storm."
So the town's key players stayed in touch through phone calls and electronic communication, he said.
"A lot of what was being done was decentralized. The selectmen were involved from wherever they were and I was somewhat offsite, but most everyone else that was involved was hand on in their locations," McEwan said.
"It's very difficult in some circumstances to bring a staff member to a location and dedicate their time to a certain location. In some instances, it's imperative to do that, but in this circumstance, I think we were better suited being on the street and reporting to us," he said.
"Getting all of our people together in a room ... didn't seem like it was going to be the most profitable use of our time," said Democratic Selectman David Bayne, who served as acting first selectman from Sunday afternoon through Thursday while Republican First Selectman Dave Campbell was on vacation. "I could well be wrong, and it's something we should look at in terms of our incident review."
Bayne also said that town officials were in constant contact throughout the week.
"[Police Chief] Duane Lovello and Marc McEwan constantly had their cell phones to their ears talking to each other. I'm almost 200 minutes over my cell phone plan at this point, and I never go near what my plan is," he said. "I don't think there was a lack of coordination and communication among the town's employees that were involved, but it is something we're going to look at."
The Board of Selectmen on Monday discussed holding a meeting to take a retrospective look at storm response; no date has been set for this meeting as of press time, but Bayne said it should happen sooner than later.
Communication was key during the crisis, according to Bayne.
"The way I view my role, personally, is that the most important function was as chief information officer in town, collecting information from various sources and then transmitting it to the town in a fashion they could understand. That's why the press, in this case, played an invaluable role," he said.
"It's terrible sitting alone in a cold, dark house, but it's really terrible sitting alone in a cold, dark house not knowing what's going on and what to expect. Information is empowerment, and it helped ease the level of frustration people were dealing with, with the length of time it took to get power back," he said.
Power was restored to all but one Darien household by Saturday, March 20, one week after the storm. At one point, about half of Darien homes were in the dark.
In New Canaan, officials decided to open the EOC at about 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, hours after the storm began slamming town.
The town has three levels of activation for its center, according to New Canaan's Emergency Management Director David Jonker. In tier one, which is the lowest level of activation, police, fire, EMS and public works representatives come together in the command center, Jonker said.
"Tier two is all the department heads in town," he said. This includes health and human services and representatives from the school system.
Jonker said it was clear to him that the emergency "necessitated a higher level of activation of the EOC," due to the nature and volume of calls received.
"In this case, we had a level-three activation, which means we also had outside agencies come in. In our case, [Connecticut Light & Power] had a seat in our EOC. So when we were there, any questions we had could go right to the CL&P rep," Jonker said.
At the height of the storm in New Canaan, 66 percent of residents were without power and more than 150 roads were partially or totally blocked due to downed trees and wires, according to Jonker.
"Some towns sustained more damage than others. For us, we felt we sustained heavy damage, power was going to be out for a substantial period of time. The best responsibility to the town was a full activation," he said.
"We brought in CL&P, after much resistance on their part, and had them place a full-time person in the EOC," said New Canaan's Republican First Selectman Jeb Walker.
Having a representative from the utility company helped speed up the power restoration process, Walker said. All New Canaan residents had power restored by 5:05 p.m. Friday, March 19.
"It would have been days longer, not necessarily in getting power up, but in doing all the things necessary to make CL&P more efficient, because we had them in the room with us. The highway folks and CL&P people in that room could sort out how to clear a road," Walker said.
"Having CL&P in the room enabled our public works and highway department to respond more quickly to CL&P's needs. Shortly after [CL&P's representative] came on board, we had our guys working with their crews," Walker said. "Their crews came from all over the Northeast; those people don't know New Canaan, and the streets in New England, and the windy roads, and what it's like to be on streets with no street lights, much like it is in Darien.
"Being able to know where something was, how to get there best, and to have the right guys with them was a tremendous help. They would check the wires and we would move the trees. We made a nice team in that regard," Walker said.
Another major benefit of the EOC was quick, clear communication, Walker said.
"With regular briefings in the EOC , we could keep the information flow as constant as possible, and more importantly, keep it accurate. There was one source of information in town," he said.
Westport Deputy Emergency Management Director Jon Gottfried said his town's EOC helped streamline emergency response.
"Having all those people in one room helps you manage the incident better and helps you coordinate," Gottfried said. "There can be a lot of wasted steps if everybody's in their own little bunker. Stuff's not going to happen as seamlessly."
Person-to-person communication also made relaying instructions and requests, like ones made between town officials and CL&P more efficient, Walker said.
"You're looking someone in the eye and saying, `I need you to do this.' It's a lot easier when you're face to face. It made people get to know each other's issues better, and make sure that the question and answer were clearly understood by everybody involved," Walker said.
The town of Westport brought CL&P closer to the emergency headquarters than the utility company would typically be stationed during an emergency, according to Gottfried.
"We have a procedure that if the damage is significant enough, they roll a trailer in and they work out of it," Gottfried said. "Formally, it was always placed down at the public works garage, but we made a decision early on to get it up there," he said.
The trailer was parked in a lot adjacent to the town's EOC, he said.
"We had three meetings a day with CL&P in here; had one of their people attached at the hip in the EOC," he said.
"On one of the days, it might have been Monday, the [CL&P representative] was permanently assigned over to our EOC. We set up portable radios between our EOC and their command center, so if he walked across to do something, we could still talk to him," Gottfried said. "So there was good back and forth there. We had them at our beck and call to the extent that we could try to get answers."
Darien also had CL&P representatives located in town during the days following the storm, according to Bayne.
"Our dedicated representatives were spending their time at the Darien Command Center for CL&P at the rest center on [Interstate-95] South," Bayne said. "I wanted them to do their work. I didn't want to be in their way. They had a gargantuan task to fill over that short period of time, and I didn't want them tripping over me and distracting them form their task of getting the power one.
"It seemed more important to let them do their thing and update me when there was some breaking news they needed to update the town," Bayne said.