2012-03-01 / Front Page

Island goes high tech in emergency readiness

Landlines will receive alerts from Jamestown’s new notification system
BY KEN SHANE

At its Feb. 13 meeting the Town Council formally approved the installation of an emergency notifi- cation system for the town. At the same time, the council appointed Fred Pease as deputy director of Jamestown’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA), who will be in charge of the new system.

Pease has served as deputy director of the agency since he was appointed by former police chief Thomas Tighe. When Ed Mello came on board, he felt that it was important to have the appointment formalized by the council. As police chief, Mello is the head of Jamestown’s EMA.

Over the next six to eight weeks every listed landline telephone number in Jamestown will be automatically input into the new system. Once that is accomplished, the EMA will launch a campaign to encourage local residents to add their cellphone numbers and email addresses to the system. In the event of an emergency, residents will be contacted using their preferred method of notification.

According to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, the discussion of an emergency alert system was initiated last winter during budget preparation with the police department. Tighe proposed that such a system should be considered because they were becoming more widespread among communities in Rhode Island. A budget of $9,000 was created for the purchase of the system. The expenditure was approved by the council and subsequently as part of the overall budget.

“The system is going to allow all emergency officials – be it police, fire or emergency management – to quickly notify the community of important events,” Mello said. “It could be a storm-related event or some other event that has safety concerns that the public would need to know about.”

Mello recently saw the Everbridge system in action when he visited South Kingstown, where it was installed last year. Keiser and Lt. Angela Deneault accompanied Mello on the visit.

“We saw how the system works, how it’s set up,” Mello said. South Kingstown was able to use the system during Hurricane Irene last year, and all three Jamestown offi cials were satisfied with its functionality.

There were several notification systems presented to the council for approval. According to Mello, the functionality of all of the systems were virtually the same in terms of the options that they offered to emergency officials and to the public. The final decision came down to vetting the reliability of the system infrastructure and the cost involved.

Keiser said that they looked at the state’s master purchase list of providers of the systems and there were five identified as service providers that the town could contract without going out to public bid. “We invited those five to submit proposals to us for consideration,” said Keiser. “Ultimately we selected Everbridge based on user friendliness, technological capability and cost.”

When the EMA is ready to ask people to enroll their cellphones and email addresses in the program, a link will be placed on the town’s website that will allow people to do that. When tax bills are sent out, Mello hopes to include notices to remind people of the importance of registration.

Mello said that he is also going to reach out to the senior center and some of the apartment complexes so that they can help residents register right on site. The chief expects that once the landlines are all input a test of the system will be conducted via calls to those numbers.

“I think it will be a great thing,” Pease said. “In a dire emergency you would want to notify everyone very quickly. It’s a little bit hard to get information out quickly to people. So it makes total sense to be able to grab almost everybody very quickly. As we know, there are things that can come to pass that we hope never will, that timeliness is certainly the key issue.”

Pease stressed that although it will be an opt-in system when it comes to cellphones and email addresses, he hopes that everyone will choose to enroll. “If you have it in your pocket, it’s a lot better than your phone ringing at home when you’re at work or at the beach,” he said. “There are a lot of people now who don’t even have a home phone. They rely totally on their cellphone. The more information that you can disseminate and the faster you can do it, the better off you are.”

Keiser said given the technological innovations in communications that have occurred, he thinks it is beneficial to the community to be able to reach out to residents with instant messaging to alert them to any emergency condition, whether it be a hurricane, winter storm or man-made disaster.

“It expands by geometric proportions the ability of our residents to prepare for events that could have adverse impacts on them if they weren’t aware of it ahead of time,” Keiser said.

Pease has been attending ongoing emergency management classes since his initial appointment by Tighe. The classes have included subjects like the incident command system, terrorist attack, bombings, swine flu and other pandemics. “You get kept abreast of what’s coming down the pike,” he said.

Having a deputy director of the town’s EMA is critical to emergency preparedness, according to Pease. “I believe whole heartedly in having the police chief be the director, but obviously you can see cases where the police chief is going to find other things more pressing. It depends on the situation. I think it’s just an effort to give us more continuity and redundancy.”

Among the other responsibilities of the EMA are the opening of shelters when necessary and the establishment of points of distribution where much needed building supplies, food and water can be distributed during times of crisis.

“We have plans for all that,” Pease said. “We’ve actually gone on a Blackhawk helicopter ride and mapped out where we would airdrop things.” During such emergencies, the command center for the EMA is at the police station, with the second floor of the firehouse in place as the backup location.

According to Pease, emergency preparedness is very much a collaborative effort among town agencies. “It’s hand in glove with the EMA, the fire and the police,” he said. “We’re quite fortunate that everything is running very smoothly.”

The EMA also goes into action when an evacuation is called for. “You can’t really make people evacuate very easily,” Pease said. “Generally our evacuation plans involve going out to the low lying parts of town that would clearly be affected by a major storm for instance, literally putting flyers on their doors and talking on the loud hailer to alert them. There is also a registry of people who are shut in that we can notify.”

Pease wants to caution local residents about being complacent because the island survived recent storms relatively unscathed. “They’re going to be shocked if we get the real thing, a ’54 or a ’38 style storm,” he said. “I don’t have to prove that it can happen because it has, and it will again by the way. That’s our motto: It’s not if, it’s when.”

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