Sunday September 23, 2012

The commotion started around 5 a.m. on Aug. 2, as pre-dawn skies began to brighten over South Berkshire.

Many Great Barrington residents were awakened by a reverse-911 call authorized by the local emergency management director about a toxic chemical plume said to be drifting toward the area from a massive fire at the TCI transformer recycling plant in West Ghent, N.Y., about 15 air miles away.

What followed was a day of confusion as frightened or bewildered residents and business owners tried to sort out conflicting information from the reverse-911 calls, from local and social media, and from Albany TV stations covering the Columbia County fire, which had broken out at 10 the previous night.

Some residents reported that the message on the first 911 call was blank; two more calls would follow. Others who have given up land lines only heard about the potential emergency hours later.

By mid-morning, residents were getting a second reverse-911 call based on a "shelter-in-place" alert from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, based 100 miles to the east inside an underground bunker in Framingham.

The message urged people within 15 miles of the fire to get indoors, close and lock all doors and windows, turn off fans or air conditioners, keep pets inside, and move livestock into shelter. Motorists were advised to close windows and air vents, enter a building or drive out of the affected area.

The message caused some to wonder if it was safe to go outdoors at all.

Several local emergency-management directors told The Eagle that MEMA might have overreacted, causing alarm and even panic. Other directors, acknowledging a need for better coordination with the state, said it's best to err on the side of caution.

As a result of the fire, improved reverse-911 systems, providing residents with the option to register cellphone numbers and email addresses, will be implemented.

According to Maj. Thomas Grady, who oversees emergency response for the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office, MEMAis looking at more advanced technology, which would utilize cellphones, social media and emails to get the word out.

Referring to the Aug. 2 incident, Grady noted, "People were probably getting more information from [others on] Facebook and Twitter than they were from emergency management officials."

The downside, though, is that "you're not sending the same message to everybody."

The county's Homeland Security Council, which Grady chairs, has been holding training sessions on the use of social media.

"We have some work to do," he acknowledged. "The challenge is to get emergency management directors to coordinate information.

Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski leads an Aug. 2 meeting at the West Stockbridge command center, where emergency management personnel discussed the
Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski leads an Aug. 2 meeting at the West Stockbridge command center, where emergency management personnel discussed the chemical fire. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
We need to smooth out some rough edges."

This month, Pittsfield and North Adams installed a new, high-tech system called CodeRED to alert the public via land line, cellphones, email and texts about urgent situations. Both cities expect the system to be fully operational on or about Oct. 1. The new systems were ordered long before the chemical fire.

On Aug. 2, according to Edward G. McCormick -- emergency management director for Sheffield, Egremont and Alford -- information and misinformation about the chemical plume was starting to create "mass panic" in South Berkshire.

McCormick, a managing partner of the law firm McCormick, Murtagh & Marcus in Great Barrington, with three decades of experience in emergency service management, said he believes MEMA overreacted.

But Peter Judge, the agency's public-information officer, said it wasn't "your normal emergency -- it involved multiple states and multiple levels of authority. The existing system worked pretty well, but we're working to find better ways to notify people."

Detailing MEMA's communication efforts, Judge listed notifications on the agency's Twitter and Facebook feeds, as well as a live emergency phone line for the public, 211, which he acknowledged isn't well-known in Western Massachusetts.

MEMA issued two alerts to the media, Judge said, which expanded the original targeted area -- Great Barrington, Egremont, Alford and northern Sheffield -- to 10 South Berkshire towns because winds were causing the chemical plume to drift over "a bigger footprint than we anticipated. We'd rather be safe than sorry."

However, he added, communication remains a challenge.

"There were some conflicting messages," said Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh, also the town's emergency management director. "We didn't think people had to stay inside. The MEMA advisory did cause some confusion; it was a coordination problem. We knew it wasn't as bad as they stated."

In McCormick's view, MEMA "was doing too much; they didn't want to be caught with their pants down, the [Hurricane] Katrina syndrome."

Adding to the confusion, he explained, was a lack of coordination among the state agency and emergency management officials in South Berkshire, the Columbia County Command Center in Hudson, N.Y., and the New York state emergency management office in Albany.

"It was a learning experience," McCormick said as he reconstructed the events of Aug. 2, beginning with the 3:15 a.m. call he received about the chemical-plant fire. "The command center in Hudson was advising that a large plume was heading toward the Southern Berkshires."

The reverse-911 calls and media advisories followed.

Residents in towns that lack reverse-911 systems, such as Sheffield, were notified by the Berkshire County Sheriff's Communications Center, which is responsible for 21 communities in the county.

By the end of the day, state air-testing units sent to the West Stockbridge command center and activated for the emergency had determined that the plume had dissipated, with no ill effects on anyone in the region. But residents within a mile of the West Ghent plant had to clean up residue on their lawns and driveways.

Grady said he believes things worked "very well" overall, although he acknowledged a disparity between the local communities and MEMA about the severity of the threat, since the Framingham-based office had a more dire view of the potential danger.

"I would always err on the side of being more cautious until we have good information that there's not a threat," he said. "But we don't want to scare people unnecessarily."

Robert Czerwinski, Pittsfield's fire chief and emergency management director, offered a similar assessment, though he cited the Albany TV stations for unintentionally contributing to the confusion by taking MEMA's information "at face value. Nobody bothered to check with the people on the ground."

He said plume-monitoring maps showed "very little risk north of Egremont."

In his view, city emergency directors, working with the may ors of Pittsfield and North Adams, should have the final say.

"Decisions should be made at the local level," Czerwinski said. "I don't think MEMA was listening to us here."

Grady said Massachusetts is a "home-rule state, with local communities having autonomy so local emergency directors can make the call."

Czerwinski contended that the Albany media "helped feed some panic into the public, but it was a combination of things. People jumped into panic mode, calling police, calling Fairview Hospital [in Great Barrington]."

At the most, Czerwinski asserted, he and his colleagues at the command post in West Stockbridge were suggesting that residents in the South County towns adjoining the New York border "maybe think about curtailing outdoor activities."

"The unfortunate side of the story," he said, "was that every time we turned around, there was gloom and doom, the sky is falling, coming out of New York state. Who was making these decisions?" Seeking an answer to that question before the next emergency situation arises continues to concern local directors.

"The unfortunate side of the story," he said, "was that every time we turned around, there was gloom and doom, the sky is falling, coming out of New York state. Who was making these decisions?" Seeking an answer to that question before the next emergency situation arises continues to concern local directors.

McCormick said he hopes for a breakthrough when Berkshire officials meet with MEMA leaders, including director Kurt Schwartz, at a time to be scheduled in October.

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto