Tuesday September 25, 2012

Last month's fire at a recycling plant in Ghent, N.Y., created all kinds of confusion in Southern Berkshire County when reports surfaced that a toxic chemical plume from the blaze might be headed in that direction. Fortunately, that didn't happen, but the incident proved that even in these days of instantaneous media, emergency communications in the region must be handled better. In the wake of that incident, officials have decided to re-evaluate the Berkshires' emergency alert system, and we believe that is a good idea.

Coordination between agencies during emergencies is always key in solving situations that crop up, especially when it comes to alerting the public. Obviously, that coordination was lacking in this case. Residents and business owners tried to sort out conflicting information from reverse 911 calls, social media and Albany television stations, which had broken the news the night before. The good news is that incidents like this are often when it becomes obvious that the lines of communication are conflicted. The bad news is that it takes a near disaster to find that out. We're lucky the incident wasn't worse.

One area where coordination should definitely be re-evaluated is the communication between local emergency service providers and the Massachusetts Emer gency Management Agency. Several local emergency management directors be lieved that MEMA may have overreacted when a second reverse 911 call was sent out based on an alert that MEMA issued from its headquarters just outside of Boston. It left many people wondering whether they should go outside at all. Edward McCormick, the emergency management coordinator for three South County towns, referred to the whole incident as a "learning experience."

MEMA sees it differently. The agency's public information officer, Peter Judge, told The Eagle the situation in Ghent wasn't "your normal emergency" -- meaning multiple agencies and states were in volved. He believes the "existing system" worked well, but admitted "we're working to find better ways to notify people."

Coordination between agencies is a must in an age when information can often be obtained instantaneously. Much of the information is based on observations that haven't been investigated in detail before being released. Some emergency providers blamed local TV stations for creating confusion because they took MEMA's information at face value without bothering to check with anyone at the scene.

The cities of Pittsfield and North Adams are already taking steps to better alert citizens in times of emergency by deciding to implement high-tech CodeRED systems that are designed to alert the public through a variety of sources -- land, cellphones, email and text -- about urgent situations. Those systems are expected to be running in both cities by next week.