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December 21, 2009

Area Communities Test Emergency Plans in Tabletop Exercise

PULASKI - The time of year is mid-October, with the leaves still on the trees. An intense, localized, early season lake effect storm has hit all of Oswego County. This storm is a band of heavy, water laden snow. It starts as lake effect rain, and changes to heavy wet snow as temperatures fall from the 40s into the low 30s. Snow begins falling in late afternoon and continues into the early hours of the next morning.

By the time the storm has ended, up to 24 inches of snow has fallen, bringing down trees and wires onto local roads and causing a widespread power outage. Highway crews are having trouble clearing the streets due to the debris, and emergency vehicles cannot get through to assist people needing medical care.

“This is a major disaster that's taking place in Oswego County,” Patricia Egan, County Director of Emergency Management, told community members taking part in a recent exercise of their emergency plans. “It affects your residents in a big way. How are you going to handle this?”

Local government and emergency response personnel from five municipalities came together in Pulaski recently to discuss how they would respond under their Comprehensive Emergency Management Plans. They discussed how officials would be notified and what steps they would need to follow to take care of infrastructure and human needs until power could be restored and roads cleared.

The Town of Richland and Village of Pulaski, Town of Sandy Creek and Village of Lacona, and City of Oswego tested their emergency plans with the scenario that was reminiscent of the October 2006 lake effect storm which devastated the City of Buffalo. “This was a great opportunity for us to review our plan and see what changes need to be made so we can more effectively respond to this type of emergency in the city,” Mayor Randy Bateman said.

“We tested our plan last in 2001, not long after our Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan was approved,” noted Lacona Mayor Peggy Manchester. “We found some things to add or improve so we can begin taking care of our community while the county and outside resources are beginning to arrive.”

Sandy Creek and Lacona put their joint plan into action in June 2006, when a severe thunderstorm and high winds ripped through the community. “The County was able to assist us right away during that storm,” Sandy Creek Town Supervisor Lonnie Crast said. “But in a county-wide emergency, we may need to rely on our own resources for a while longer.”

New to the process were the Town of Richland and Village of Pulaski, which are about to approve their joint Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan. “This gave us an opportunity to really see how our plan would work, what information we would need and what we would need to consider during a disaster,” Pulaski Mayor Ernie Wheeler said.

“We found some things that we'd like to implement in our plan, such as checklists for our emergency operations center personnel,” said Ron Crandall, acting town supervisor for Richland. “This exercise was a really good experience for us.”

“These five municipalities are among 28 that have worked with my office on plans that cover the cycle of emergency management from mitigation and preparedness to response and recovery,” Director Egan said. “Writing the plans is the first step in coordination among agencies involved in emergency preparedness, but they're of little use if they're left to gather dust on a shelf. The best way to see if the plans will work is to test them in an exercise.”

The tabletop exercise in Pulaski was the first of two planned for municipalities with comprehensive emergency management plans. “We plan to hold a second tabletop in January, this time in Phoenix, to allow any other municipalities the chance to test their plans,” Director Egan said. “We encourage anyone interested to contact my office by Jan. 8.”

Director Egan led the Pulaski tabletop exercise. Facilitators included Al Heath, County Deputy Fire Coordinator for Special Operations; Jeff Grimshaw, Office of Business and Community Relations at SUNY Oswego; Judy LaMay, Skywarn Coordinator for Oswego County and a member of Oswego County Emergency Communicators/RACES; and Ron Raymond, New York State Emergency Management Office Region IV.

Each municipality brought their chief elected officials, council members, and representatives of emergency response agencies, including fire, emergency medical services, and law enforcement. Schools and health-care agencies were also represented. “The partnerships of these agencies in each community are critical to the success of these plans,” Director Egan said. “Each agency brings resources and ideas to the table. Each agency is vested in ensuring life safety and protecting property during emergencies and disasters.”

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