Towns preparing for worst of winter

Saturday, November 22, 2008 6:10 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

OLD SAYBROOK — The scenario: a week-and-a-half-long ice storm hits southern Connecticut over the Thanksgiving holiday. Residents trapped in their houses are running out of food and fuel, and dangerous roads are causing accidents and making it difficult for people to reach the hospital.

With a cold snap this week and harsher winter weather fast approaching, officials from local towns and hospitals gathered this week to talk about how they would respond to a cold weather emergency.

The meeting at the Saybrook Point Inn included representatives from Old Saybrook, Westbrook and Clinton, as well as other towns in the Connecticut River area, the state, Middlesex Hospital, utility companies and the Red Cross. Attendees included local officials in charge of emergency management, police and fire, health departments, public works, youth and family services and school districts, among others.

Carl Osaki, the program’s facilitator, said that the goal is to have people work through the procedures they have in place for themselves and for interacting with other towns and agencies.

“We want them to understand some of the gaps that might be in their program’s policies,” Osaki said. “We want them to meet with other agencies so that they can work together more collaboratively.”

The group of representatives from Old Saybrook talked through the plans they have in place for emergency situations and how they could have to adapt in this situation. Through the course of the scenario, groups received a series of 15 messages dealing with items like coordinating with hospitals, communicating with the public, making sure people stay warm and using schools for shelters.

Old Saybrook First Selectman Michael Pace and Social Services Coordinator Joanne Messner said that it would be important to reach out to residents during the first forecast of bad weather.

“We’re finding that we have people that are not in traditional housing arrangements — we have families in motels,” Pace said. “We want to make sure that there’s no one who’s a substantial group in our town that may fall through the cracks because they may not have radio, they may not have TV.”

Messner said that a local oil company works with the town to deliver emergency heating oil to residents.

Saybrook Deputy Police Chief Michael Spera added that the town would probably set up “warming centers” for people whose homes were cold. During the summer, there were similar cooling centers for those without air-conditioning.

“We don’t want people running generators in their homes, opening up the electric oven to heat the home,” Spera said. “We’re not telling people they have to evacuate their homes. We’re saying, ‘If you’re cold, come get warm, if you’re warm, stay home.’”

The town’s fire, police and public works departments also have a number of vehicles for snowy and icy conditions.

“It would be unlikely that the Old Saybrook Fire Department would be unable to respond,” Deputy Fire Chief J.T. Dunn said.

Many of the town’s preparations and responses would involve coordinating with other groups, Spera said.

Spera said that the role-play activities help town officials understand the policies and resources they already have. Although it is difficult to predict every scenario, he said, police and fire officials are trained on how to work within established standards.

“I think that you can’t have a policy and procedure for every type of single emergency,” he said. “I think it would be impossible to do that.”

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