By Anna Meiler & Nick Russo
Many of the communities affected by the June 1 tornadoes struggled with chaos and miscommunication, according to an After Action Report/Improvement Plan (AAR) compiled by the Western Massachusetts Regional Homeland Security Advisory Council.
The report, released on Jan. 18, outlines the failures and strengths in emergency response for all of Western Massachusetts, including communication issues between government officials, emergency responders, and citizens, lack of training for appointed emergency personnel, and general unpreparedness for a disaster.
“I think that emergency management had been on the back burner because it had been so long since a response of that nature was needed,” said Evan Brassard, Monson's Emergency Management Director.
In addition to organizational problems and miscommunication within the Incident Command System, the report says that many shelters were unprepared for the influx of tornado refugees and had difficulties coordinating with other shelters and rehousing programs. The report also stated that hospitals discharged some patients -- in a practice referred to as "hospital dumping" -- without first evaluating whether or not the shelters were equipped to manage continuing medical issues.
The report also said that, due to standards in emergency response food practices, some shelter occupants who had dietary restrictions were unable to consume food that was distributed and instead relied on donated home-cooked food consumed off the shelter premises.
Another issue raised in the report was that of low-quality cots that many reported were “buckling, tearing, and ripping after just one use."
Springfield Fire Department spokesperson Dennis Leger said Springfield’s police and fire departments were well-equipped and trained to respond to the emergency due to the many and frequent trainings they have every year.
Leger stated that Springfield’s emergency management organizations have been able to attend trainings and drills due to the city’s ability to obtain grants and funding, something that the Monson town government and other small towns have had difficulty with.
Lack of training, however, was cited in the AAR as a common problem throughout the region among appointed and elected officials responsible for emergency management roles. The report found that many officials had not completed required ICS (Incident Command System) training which aims to standardize methods of emergency response among federal, state, and local organizations.
In Monson, town officials were unable to communicate shelter options to residents during both the tornado and the October nor’easter due to fallen power lines. Brassard said the town recently purchased roadside message boards to display emergency messages and resources to residents in future emergency situations.
“We’re such a small town that it’s always going to be hard to respond to something that large. It’s not like we’re a large city that has all these resources,” said Brassard. “Organization will make us stronger.”
The disaster encompassed such a large geographic area and such a large amount of the population, that response beyond the fire and police departments was required but not executed because many emergency personnel were unaware of their position’s responsibilities, said Karen King, founder of the Street Angels volunteer program.
The problem of ‘staff redundancy’ was also an issue during the disaster -- the case in which an emergency personnel is not available and needs to be replaced. Kathleen Norbut, Monson’s Emergency Management Director at the time of the tornado was out of state on vacation in Florida on June 1. Norbut didn’t return to Monson for several days.
Norbut’s contract ended in July 2011 and the town appointed Evan Brassard.
“Not having an emergency manager there at the time to coordinate the activities was detrimental to the response,” said Evan Brassard, who was appointed as the Emergency Management Director in August 2011.
Brassard said that the town has worked hard to make great strides in emergency response preparedness. The emergency Planning Committee meets once every other month, the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan has been redone, and an effort to determine the emergency personnel that need to complete ICS training is underway. Training includes online exercises and attending meetings.
Chief of Police, Stephen Kozlowski, also cited redundancy as a detrimental issue.
“Who would’ve thought a tornado would move through down town Monson and compromise the police department? But it did,” he said. “So in hindsight now, it’s easy to say, we should have planned for the destruction of our police department and a complete failure of our communications facility.”
Miscommunication was another issue that fueled the disaster on June 1, both interdepartmental as well as between government official and coordinators.
Karen King was recently appointed as the Volunteer Coordinator, a position that Brassard believes will greatly help the town with swift emergency response in the case of a future disaster.
“If you look at the responses to hurricane Irene, or the snowstorm, the systems are much more refined now. Response is more organized,” he said. Hurricane Irene and the October nor’easter were both federally declared disasters.
The AAR also makes note of the many success stories in cities and towns including the swiftness of volunteer response, effectiveness of some state agencies, and the quick response by local fire and police departments. Despite these successes, the report weighs heavy on the side of improvements needed to emergency preparedness and response.
Officials and residents both feel as if they have learned lessons in preparedness and recovery since the tornado. Town officials are working to improve communication, training, and structural issues, while individuals are taking steps such as maintaining a home emergency kit and gaining a basic understanding of emergency procedures.
“It’s awful we have to go through it but we’ll be much more prepared in the future,” said Brassard.
The report was assembled from interviews of 40 individuals across 18 organizations and can be viewed and downloaded here.
Anna Meiler can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow her on Twitter: @anna_meiler
Nick Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter: @nickjrusso
Photo Credit: Gail Morrissey
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About the authors
Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.