Working Together Against a Storm

‘When you plan as a group, you think of everybody,’ police captain says
The interior of the East Hampton Village Police Department's emergency communications van Morgan McGivern

    Inside a large room in East Hampton Village’s Emergency Services Building at 1 Cedar Street, preparation for a major storm, be it a northeaster, a blizzard, or the storm of the century, doesn’t begin in the hours or even days beforehand. It begins months, even years, in advance.
    East Hampton Village Police Capt. Michael Tracey has seen the operation grow from a gleam in the eye several years ago to today’s well-oiled machine. It is an asset, he said last week, for both the town and village to use, and its value was demonstrated during Hurricane Sandy, the first time a cross-section of emergency responders from across the East End, as well as town agencies as disparate as the Highway Department and code enforcement, could all work smoothly together.
     “It is a way for the community to build a framework where your information is going to be funneled into one area, you’re going to formulate a plan and you’re going to get that out to the public,” Captain Tracey said. “You need one centralized place to communicate with everybody on the road, support the leadership that’s going to make decisions. It’s not a command center, it is a coordination center.”
    When a storm actually hits, all hands are on deck, with the coordinators seated around a 12-by-12 foot table, all wired into communications. “There is so much to gain by having everybody together,” said J.P. Foster, one of three emergency dispatch supervisors.
    He gave an example of how it worked during Sandy, of a downed tree that had to be cleared from the roadway to allow emergency vehicles to pass.
    “I need three payloaders. The village has two. The Town Highway Department says, ‘I got one I can send.’ Now we can move a huge tree that we otherwise couldn’t move. For me to have the highway person sitting next to me was so nice.”
    Captain Tracey described how things were organized. “At the first meeting, [the different department heads] show up with a cup of coffee,” he said. “The second, with a cup of coffee and a pencil, and the third, coffee, pencil, and part of the plan they are going to help write.” Sitting together, they run through a step-by-step review of their various plans for emergency.
    “When you plan as a group, you have to think of everybody,” said Captain Tracey. “The highway fellow, we rely on him for so much, what about gas? That was years ago we thought about that. How far out did you have to know about this storm to know to top off your gas?” Both village and town agencies topped off their supplies of gasoline several days in advance.
    The captain gave an example of the pitfalls that can be prevented by rigorous preparation. “If somebody says, ‘This will be covered by this group.’ Well, who do you contact there? Nobody knows? Guess what. They are not part of your plan.”
    At that point, he said, it’s time to call the agency in question. If it provides the contact information needed and guarantees that it can follow through, it’s added into the overall plan.
    “It’s disaster-specific, also agency-specific,” said the captain. “What’s the beach manager doing? What’s the facility super doing? What’s the commander of the police department doing?”
    “Everybody knows what everybody else is doing. That solves a lot of turf and communication issues.”
    Mr. Foster talked about the use of personnel, saying that their deployment across disciplines is essential in an emergency. Traffic control officers, who would not be out in the streets writing tickets during a hurricane, might be deployed instead to answer phones, he said. “The goal is to minimize the impact of the emergency. These are the things our community has to have.”
    Planning for a storm starts with the weather forecast. The National Weather Service issues PowerPoint presentations in the lead-up to any storm, which continue throughout the day. Any department that has questions can call in during the presentation and speak directly to the people preparing the reports.
    Customized alerts are sent out according to the needs of each area. “You design your own alerts,” Captain Tracey explained. “I draw an area around the Island, relative to us. It is very specific and very tailored. Each person using the system can change their zones.”
    When an alert comes in, Captain Tracey sends out e-mails to essential responders. In the case of Sandy, East Hampton had a week’s warning. The emergency planners went through three phases: a preliminary meeting, followed by a major briefing, followed by implementation.
    In the case of the police, schedules were readjusted, with extra overtime added. The various departments brought in extra personnel to sleep in the building, in order to be on hand, and prepared “ready meals” to feed them.
    One important asset deployed in crisis situations is the village’s communications truck. While Sandy’s winds were howling, the fear was that the radio tower in Montauk might lose service, as happened last year during Hurricane Irene. But for the mobile truck, it would then be next to impossible to dispatch radio signals to emergency workers in Montauk. (The problem is Hither Hills, which blocks the signals from the other four towers in the town.)
    But the truck — which contains radio transmitters to cover the different ranges and frequencies that could be called on in an emergency as well as an onboard generator, various computers and work stations, and even a telescoping 21-foot tower for shooting live video — can act as a dispatch center, filling the gap of a failed tower. It was stationed in Montauk during Irene and proved its worth when the tower there went down; during Sandy it was again stationed in the easternmost hamlet but this time the tower held.
    East Hampton Town had been planning its own emergency planning center, said Captain Tracey, but things went so smoothly during Sandy that the two municipalities may instead team up permanently out of the Cedar Street headquar