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Emergency prep ahead of feds

Agency cooperation in better shape

A Southbridge EMS worker surveys a young victim, gathering information like age and extent of possible injuries during last Thursday’s Tri-EPIC drill. Christopher Tanguay. (click for larger version)
August 02, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — Although there's always room for improvement, local emergency service folks say the Massachusetts response system is in much better shape than a recent federal report claims the nation as a whole is.

In June, the General Accounting Office concluded its most recent study of federal agencies' communications issues related to preparedness for "catastrophic disasters" by finding they still have problems despite years of extra emphasis and funding.

"Limited collaboration and monitoring jeopardize federal emergency communications efforts, even as the federal government has taken strategic steps to assist first responders," its summary states. "… DHS and FCC have also not applied these practices in FCC's effort to promote a public safety network for emergency communications. Agency officials reported it was either too early or not the agency's responsibility to use these best practices in developing this network."

DHS is the Department of Homeland Security; FCC, the Federal Communications Commission. Elsewhere, the report noted — repeatedly, albeit in slightly different words — that various communications improvements have not happened because "federal agencies did not effectively identify a common goal and design mutually reinforcing strategies."

Specifically regarding creating an interoperable communications network (which is seen as a "public/private partnership" run by a commercial enterprise), GAO found that FCC wants to charge users for access to the system and for equipment, while DHS notes that "would be problematic for jurisdictions that lack funds." DHS also observed that equipment distribution during a crisis "would pose a logistical challenge, if not be impossible," and wondered how people would train with it, but FCC didn't address either issue, the report states.

A footnote further observed, "neither agency has undertaken to incorporate each other's goals in their specific planning."

In Massachusetts, however, there has been statewide collaboration for major incidents involving hazardous materials, medical events, fires and other disasters "for years," said Southbridge Firefighter Roland Larochelle, the town's Deputy Emergency Management Director and regional hazmat coordinator. He could not recall exactly how long it has existed, but recalled getting aid from as far away as Leominster for Southbridge's week-long landfill fire in July 2002. The system was more recently invoked for the Bernat Mill fire in Uxbridge in July 2007.

The system is designed to ensure major emergencies in any town get adequate personnel without stripping the immediately surrounding towns of crews that may be needed to respond to other calls. Although some of that aid may take half an hour or more to arrive, it's generally for "big enough incidents where you know you'll have enough to do" hours later, he added.

In fact, the state's Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan defines four levels of emergency by severity, noting any level can escalate into a higher level. Level I includes the common incidents that happen almost daily, for which towns usually need no outside aid; Level II "may require some form of state assistance" or what's been dubbed "mutual aid" from other communities; Level III "will require the assistance of volunteer organizations and state agencies to effectively respond to and recover from the incident;" and Level IV "will require major assistance from both the state and the Federal Government." The last category also includes events causing "widespread threats to the public safety."

"All state agencies and local governments must be prepared to respond to emergencies and disasters even when government facilities, vehicles, personnel and political decision-making authorities are affected," it states.

The plan specifically designates the Mass. Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) as the "primary support agency" for state communications in such events, and notes that towns who call on mutual aid should also notify MEMA.

Larochelle noted the system developed "in stages," gradually incorporating various regions and various emergency services.

"I have not heard a heck of a lot about other states doing anything like this," he said. "… People are so used to mutual aid being a local issue, but we don't do that anymore."

Sturbridge Board of Health member John Degnan agreed, saying he hasn't seen it in the states he's visited. Many areas have communications interoperability problems because "they're all using different frequencies," he said.

What is organized in most states, however, are ham radio operators, as Sept. 11, 2001, proved, he said.

"On 9/11, everyone flipped open their cell phones immediately, and the towers got jammed," Degnan said. "But the hams could choose unused frequencies and switch between them to get information out."

Communications problems could easily be an aspect of the emergencies the GAO report envisions — major flooding, hurricane, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic event or nuclear terrorist attack. The report put the latter scenario in Boston, where it imagines a 10-kiloton device detonating, but provides very little detail.

"In response to a disaster, federal assets are also available on the ground help mitigate one or more emergency communications vulnerabilities, including continuity of communications, capacity, and interoperability," the GAO states, later noting some vehicles in mobile emergency response support detachments "have the communications equipment necessary to facilitate full voice, data, and video multi-agency interoperability and can operate as a stand-alone communications center."

One such group is based in Maynard. It was deployed 41 times in 2007 and 34 times in 2008, the report states.

Locally, however, the Southbridge Fire Department is almost done installing a new dispatch system that has multi-channel capability, allowing the department to talk to the police, MEMA, and "almost any fire department in District 7" at the touch of a button, Larochelle said. Among other things, the system also has an 800-band radio and a one-touch phone list feature the users still have to program.

Degnan said ambulances and hospitals are also connected via the Central Mass. Emergency Medical Services (C-MED) dispatch system, adding, "There's good coordination with that piece."

What's not so good, a recent Tri-EPIC discussion noted, is the fact that most towns have radios for their health departments, but most people in those departments don't know how to use them. Degnan noted they're typically designed for very short-range use, coordinating activities on the site of an incident, but aren't interactive with police, fire or EMS systems.

To solve that problem, Tri-EPIC is discussing carrying radios with open channels, but he is not sure where that project stands.

"It would be nice if everything worked together," Degnan added.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

See Tuesday's Southbridge Evening News for complete coverage of community news.

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