Westport officials urge better preparation following Isaias review
WESTPORT — The town’s emergency response team urged residents to be proactive when preparing for the next storm event following the response to Tropical Storm Isaias, a storm that left nearly the whole town without power.
“It’s incumbent upon all of us as Americans to come together and deal with this,” Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Robert Yost said in a recent meeting where he and several department heads discussed a study on the town’s Isais response.
He said that while the federal, state and local governments have a shared response, it’s incumbent upon Westport to be self-sufficient for 72 hours.
Yost said emergency preparedness is a collaborative effort that will require both residents and officials to improve the town’s response as a whole. This includes residents being proactive in preparing for emergencies, as well as knowing emergency contacts for when the time calls.
“As we look at our new normal these weather events are becoming more and more frequent,” Yost said, adding the town could be facing multiple large events at one time in the future.
The power outages caused by the storm provided other challenges.
Deputy Chief Mike Kronick said the storm caused a significant amount of tree damage that at its peak left 90 percent of Westport without power. Roughly 2,500 calls came in during this time, or around 100 calls an hour for the four dispatchers handling calls, he said.
“It was an unprecedented number of incoming phone calls for the 24 hours that made up the majority of the storm,” Kronick said.
He said a major hindrance to storm recovery and response efforts were the police and fire radio systems that relied on phone service to work. The cellular networks failing made it difficult to transmit information between fire trucks and the dispatch center, he said.
“We lost that ability rather quickly once the cellular systems went down,” Kronick said.
Residents asked a number of questions, including improving communications within agencies and between agencies in town, as well as the cable companies’ responsibilities in their lack of coverage a week after the storm.
Town officials said there was little in their ability to pressure cell phone companies’ response.
“Eversource has oversight by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, the cable companies do not,” said Sara Harris, town operations director.
Pete Ratkiewich, director of public works, said policy decisions made before the storm led to both Cable Vision and Frontier having reduced crews during the emergency.
“In an emergency situation that’s really not adequate,” he said. “Unfortunately, these being private companies, we don’t have a lot of pressure that we can apply to make them change.”
One of the key improvements on the town side is an upgraded radio system that will improve communication inside and between departments. Money for the upgrade is expected to appear before the Representative Town Meeting in December.
Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas said a huge part of improving the town’s future response will come through this improvement in the radio system. He added the expected opening of the combined dispatch center will also be important.
“Those are going to be two things that will make an incredible difference moving forward,” Koskinas said.