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West Hartford Plans for Catastrophic Hurricane

West Hartford, which along with 165 other communities participated in a statewide disaster preparedness drill earlier this week, found this first-ever exercise to be valuable.

Officials will continue to tweak some procedures in preparation for the next time the town declares a state of emergency, but on an overall basis Interim Fire Chief Gary Allyn, who heads West Hartford's Emergency Operations Center, said the town did very well in the statewide drill held earlier this week.

Prior to the drill's official start at 8 a.m. Monday, the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security started sending out information about an approaching storm. Weather predictions and the track of the storm were based on actual historical data from the approach of the catastrophic hurricane of 1938, in which hundreds of people died and many thousands lost their homes.

The drill commenced at 8 a.m. Monday, and it was "all hands on deck" as planning began in earnest and West Hartford's Emergency Operations Center opened, 12 hours before the anticipated landfall of the fictitious storm.

"We had to create an incident action plan, which was deliverable to the state," said Allyn. As they worked, several "inserts" from the state were released, necessitating updates and revisions to the planning phase.

Directors of all town departments were involved, along with other essential personnel, West Hartford's new CL&P liaison, and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers.

In the planning phase, Allyn said the emergency operations team tested its communications systems, several aspects of which have been changed since 2011 when the town had two occasions to actually and put its procedures to the test.

A new satellite phone system in the Emergency Operations Center and communication with the state's "virtual EOC" were just a few of the changes.

On Tuesday morning, drill participants dealt with a scenario set the day after the fictitious hurricane made landfall. "We had wires down, flooded roadways, water in basements," Allyn said of the simulated details provided by the state. The scenario also included the need to shelter 6,500 people.

Although they did not physically set up cots or procure food, West Hartford "opened" a shelter at the , with CERT volunteers testing check-in/check-out procedures on all those who happened to come to the ECC in the normal course of their day. They also created supply inventory lists, and planned shower and feeding schedules for virtual shelter residents.

On Tuesday afternoon, the scenario jumped to one week post landfall. Allyn said they were told that the town would still be sheltering people, many would still be without power, and critical food and water needs would have to be addressed.

"We used a lot of the things we actually did last October in preparation for this drill," Allyn said. "Unlike a lot of the towns participating, we've done it," he said.

When the drill ended at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Allyn felt it was a successful exercise, and a valuable tool in identifying some gaps that still need to be addressed by the emergency operations team. Satellite phone and radio communications issues still need some work, he said, as does the process of properly credentially those who will work in the Emergency Operations Center.

"We determined that the Emergency Operations Center is not large enough for all of the operations we do, so we are adding space, as well as additional maps and other resources," Allyn said.

This is the first time the state has conducted this type of drill, and although it was not a graded exercise, Allyn said he thought the town did very well.

He said the value of the drill included the opportunity to meet and work with West Hartford's new CL&P liaison, Anne Bartosewicz, an engineer who lives in town. "She did a nice job, and provided us with very good information," Allyn said.

"We all learned a lot more about what each other does," he said, which helps in an emergency where you have to be able to make quick decisions without a lot of information.

Town Manager Ron Van Winkle also felt the drill was valuable. "One thing that was good about running an exercise was that you had a room full of people to discuss strategy. That was very useful for us," he said.

Allyn said that when West Hartford opened the E last August, that was the first time procedures had really been tested and no one knew what to expect. In October, when the EOC opened again, the town was more prepared.

"The more we do it, the more comfortable we feel," said Allyn, noting that those who will work in the EOC now have a better understanding of their roles, and can be more prepared for any situation that arises.

The drill was "dress rehearsal time," he said.

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