EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 9, 2013

Taking no chances

Police, fire, hospitals, utilities add staff, equipment to respond to blizzard

By Bill Kirk and Yadira Betances
Staff Writers

---- — With a blizzard bearing down on us, local, state and other emergency workers were preparing to protect us.

“We have beefed up staffing with the hope of trying to minimize any delays in response,” Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield said yesterday. “Depending on how much snow we get, obviously there will be delays.”

Despite what was forecast to be a storm of record proportions, authorities said they were ready with extra manpower, extra equipment and some modern-day emergency technology to handle any crisis.

Mansfield said it’s important for rescue crews to “take their time” when responding to an emergency. “We don’t want the rescuers to become the rescued,” he said. “They need to do their due diligence in responding to emergencies, but we have to make sure they don’t become part of the problem.”

Fire trucks and ambulances have chains that can be deployed as needed, but if worse comes to worst, he said, a public works plow can be used to clear a path for an emergency vehicle.

“In some instances we have had snow plows push snow out of the way so that emergency vehicles can get to where they need to go,” he said. “We’ve done it before. We are prepared to mobilize that type of operation again.”

Lawrence General Hospital is open and ready.

“There’s definitely no closure for us,” said said Andrea Eobstel, marketing and communication specialist at the hospital. “We will be fully open and are well-prepared.”

She said the hospital has plenty of equipment, including flashlights, two-way radios, back up generators, batteries and cell phones. In addition, an electrician will be on site during the duration of the storm and a plumber on call.

In addition, Lawrence General has two, 4-wheel drive Jeeps to pick up staff members who want to arrive early for their shifts. Workers can also stay over if they don’t want to venture into the snow.

Patriot Ambulance is also ready, said manager Dawn McInnes, with an extra truck in service bringing the total to between 8 and 10 ambulances.

She said they also have extra places to sleep for their workers.

“We basically hunker down and just hope people stay inside,” McInnes said. “We have to prepare for the worst, but with power outages comes more issues.”

In Haverhill , Police Capt. Kim Parolisi said the department has added extra manpower to keep pace with any emergencies that may arise.

“We have extra bodies assigned,” he said. In addition, the department is ready with 4-wheel drive vehicles, all-terrain vehicles and emergency generators in case of power outages.

In case of multiple emergencies, he said, police and fire will have to prioritize.

“It’s triage in any emergency situation,” he said. “If the phones are lighting up and we have the ambulance going here, there and everywhere, we have to rack, stack and prioritize. But we are here to make sure emergency services are provided.”

He added, “I doubt we’re going to have another Blizzard of ‘78, but we have to make sure we have the manpower and equipment we need in case anything happens.”

Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini said he was bringing in between three and five additional heavy plows last night to help clear city streets. He said that during the winter of 2010/2011, on some side streets, some of the trucks weren’t big enough to push back the snow far enough. The additional plows were to be deployed in five areas of the city.

Haverhill’s Water Department workers fueled up equipment and ensured emergency generators were ready to go in case power to the water treatment plant and pumping stations went out. Those are high on our priority list, said Robert Ward, the city’s director of water and wastewater.

Better communications

“We have added extra patrols to handle the call volume,” Andover Police Lt. James Hashem said.

In addition, Andover has another tool to handle widespread emergency situations.

Over the last couple of years, the town has implemented an Internet-based Emergency Operations Center, or Web-EOC, which allows all departments in town to communicate with each other and respond in real-time to any problems.

“It’s like having an emergency operations center, but it’s done electronically,” he said. All departments, including police, fire, public works and plant and facilities managers can go onto a computer with Internet access and see what’s going on, who is responding, and what’s needed. “We can make real-time decisions together.”

For example, he said, if there’s a tree down on Lowell Street and it pulls down wires and knocks out power to 500 customers, everyone in town will know about it.

“The tree department would know they have to respond,” he said, while public works and police could coordinate road closures and National Grid would be notified to fix the problem.

“We can respond to emergencies as they happen,” he said.

In North Andover, Fire Chief Andrew Melnikas said he has added extra staff as well, including putting an extra engine in service, an extra EMT on the ambulance squad and a couple of firefighters in a pickup truck to barricade roads or undertake other tasks as needed.

“That way we’re not committing a fire truck,” he said. “We’ve been through this before, so we should be pretty good.”

Local utilities and state highway crews also added extra staff ahead of the storm. Down at the former Showcase Cinemas on Route 114 in Lawrence, about a dozen trucks carrying crews from Nova Scotia stood at the ready yesterday afternoon.

“We’re ready to go. We’re prepared for the storm,” said a bundled-up Jeff McCusker, who works in procurement for National Grid.

McCusker was in the Lawrence parking lot, helping coordinate with the Nova Scotia crews from the utility company Emera. National Grid spokeswoman Charlotte McCormack said there are well over 1,000 additional crews in the New England region. She said the company closely watching the storm because forecasts yesterday said it would drop heavy, wet snow along the coast which, combined with high winds, could lead to more severe power outages than inland, where the snow is expected to be lighter.

“We are staging them and putting them in the best places to respond based on the forecasts we’re seeing,” she said. “There will be widespread impact on our service area with prolonged outages.”

During the storm, when winds are over 30 mph, crews will not be out repairing lines and poles because it’s too dangerous.

“There won’t be restoration efforts during storm,” she said. “We can’t have guys in bucket trucks in 60 mph winds, it’s just not safe. Once the snow starts hitting the ground, we can’t do much until it’s over.”

Salt trucks at the ready

The Mass. Department of Transportation had deployed 300 road crews to put salt and chemicals on the state’s highways, while another 200 state plow trucks and another 1,000 private contractors stood by to plow once the storm got going.

Gov. Deval Patrick urged everyone to stay home during the storm to allow plows to clear roads and to give emergency vehicles room to maneuver.

In New Hampshire, Gov. Maggie Hassan, in a brief press conference yesterday, asked people to get off the road by early evening.

The chief of the N.H. State Police, Col. Robert Quinn, said troopers want people to get home safely.

“Drive slow. Don’t follow too closely. Give yourself enough time. Stay focused,” Quinn said.

Hassan asked people to look out for one another.

“Check in on our friends and neighbors,” she said.

NHDOT commissioner Chris Clement said, “We’re more than ready,” with crews, equipment and supplies.

NHDOT spokesman William Boynton said an advisory highway speed of 45 mph was postede in place as the storm cranked.

“This is good for plowing, but limited visibility and a challenge for motorists,” Boynton said.

With plowing costs amounting to $75,000 an hour, Boynton said this will be a $1 million storm for NHDOT, but the budget is on track this winter.

“We will have over 700 plows on the road for a storm like this,” he said.

The American Red Cross is on stand-by regarding opening shelters, said Kat Powers, public relations specialist for the American Red Cross.

“We don’t anticipate opening them before the storm escalates or the power goes out,” she said. “We need to be careful of volunteers and first responders.”

Powers said American Red Cross is talking with town officials and have staff members and volunteers in place when its needed.

The key is staying calm.

“Keep the windows and doors closed and turn the temperature on the refrigerator up so the food doesn’t get spoil in case of a power outage. Even if the power goes out, don’t panic. We’re on standby if something is needed in the Merrimack Valley. We just urge people to be safe,” Powers said.