Emergency information must be accurate
‘What we've got here is a failure to communicate."
That line, voiced in the 1967 film "Cool Hand Luke" starring Paul Newman, is quoted so often that it approaches the realm of cliché.
But it's hard to resist as it sums up the chaotic flow of misinformation that fostered confusion bordering on panic when a supposedly toxic plume of chemicals was reported to be drifting toward Great Barrington and three neighboring South County communities on Aug. 2.
The day of melodrama was triggered by a fire at a transformer-recycling plant in western Columbia County, N.Y., that produced a harmless but messy residue on residential properties within a mile or two of the site in West Ghent.
But, cautious to a fault, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency updated restrained advisories put out by veteran local emergency directors, extending earlier local reverse-911 alerts from four towns to 10 South County communities.
MEMA's "shelter-in-place" warning urged people to stay indoors with no access to outside air, and to keep their animal companions and livestock confined as well.
As a result, as chronicled in last Sunday's Eagle, TV reports from Albany and social-media messages sparked overreaction.
Pittsfield Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Robert Czerwinski, with 35 years of experience, said the reaction was excessive because "nobody bothered to check with the people on the ground."
Among the results: A major Great Barrington supermarket shut down. Berkshire Life and General Dynamics considered doing so. The town of Otis wanted to close its summer camps and evacuate residents living around the Otis Reservoir. The Boys and Girls Club shut down its day camp on Richmond Pond. Concertgoers called Lenox police to find out if Tanglewood was open.
"People jumped into panic mode," as Czerwinski put it.
One of these days, a real or potential emergency will require accurate, timely information. It's encouraging that Pittsfield and North Adams residents now have new, advanced CodeRED alert systems ordered long before the Aug. 2 incident. Folks who want to be notified on their cells or via email need to sign up. Land lines will get the messages automatically.
But the quality of the information is crucial, and that's why MEMA officials will meet soon with the local officials, hopefully to agree that veteran Berkshire emergency directors should have the last word on what goes out to the public. That's what the state's "home-rule" provisions call for.
"You have to get out a message of sufficient quality so it's meaningful and helpful," said Stockbridge Police Chief Rick Wilcox.
"Some people were confused and frightened by what went out," Wilcox continued. "We are on a learning curve here and we still have work to do on the delivery of information. The biggest problem in the world is communication. In any emergency, it's all about the communication between emergency-management workers and the general public."
According to Lenox Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Daniel Clifford, "Everybody needs to be very careful. People at the state level don't know where Egremont or Lenox are. They have to be very specific as to which communities are impacted."
That's why a field trip to acquaint MEMA's top brass with basic Berkshire geography is timely; as an inducement, they can admire the county's gloriously colorful fall foliage. That's bound to make an impression, along with candid comments from the local emergency first-responders.
Eagle staffer Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or (413) 496-6247. On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.
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