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Communication Top Issue During Sandy, Officials Say

Closed meeting with department heads reveals what went wrong, what needs to be done in the future.

Arguably the most devastating natural disaster in Washington Township’s history, Super Storm Sandy wiped out electricity to 96-percent of the municipality, with some residents living in dark homes for two full weeks.

Municipal offices were shut for a full week and schools were closed for twice that amount of time. Public officials couldn’t get on the same page as electricity provider Jersey Central Power & Light, and trees blocked roadways for days on end, despite locals’ best efforts to remove them.

Nearly a month after Sandy swept through town, Mayor Ken Short gathered all municipal department leaders in a closed meeting at the Washington Township Municipal Building Tuesday to go over, essentially, what worked and what didn’t during the storm and in its aftermath.

While the police department, department of public works, fire department, office of emergency management and various other municipal groups had different responsibilities during the storm, they all agreed that one thing went very wrong: Communication.

Scott Frech, superintendent of the DPW kicked off the meeting by commending his workers for the relentless work they put in clearing roads of debris in the storm’s aftermath, but said his biggest issue was communicating with the county dispatch system.

“My guys did a super job,” Frech said. “Aside from the police, we were the first on a scene just about everywhere trying to clear roadways. We did a lot of [JCP&L’s] work for them. But the biggest problem was trying to communicate with the county dispatch system–it was basically nonexistent. If I can’t get through to them, their basically worthless.”

In order for Frech to give any information he may have to police or fire departments while out on the road, he was required to send it through the county dispatch system, which was overloaded, according to police Chief Michael Bailey.

Bailey agreed communications were problematic at the county level. The dispatch center brought in additional worker prior to the storm, Bailey said, but the entire system went down at one point, making it useless.

On the fire department side of operations, Charlie Davidson and Rick Welch echoed the sentiments of Frech and Bailey, saying communication with the county was nonexistent as well.

“When communication was up here,” Welch said of the former local dispatch center, “you couldn’t ask for better communication.”

Department heads like Frech and Bailey were reduced to communicating with each other via cell phone, but service was interrupted during the storm.

“I actually had to physically appear at the police station to give the guys updates and explain what was going on,” Frech said. “I was bothered it had come to that point. If Mike (Bailey) and Jimmy (Smith) weren’t manning the local communication center, we’d have nothing.”

‘Probably Going to Happen Again’

Pointing to the phenomena that three major, power-crushing storms have hit Washington Township during the month of October over the last five years, Short was quick to predict it’s likely a natural disaster of large magnitude would happen again in the future.

That being said, the group discussed the possibility of relying more on older forms of communication, including sign boards and neighborhood leaders who can notify other residents by word of mouth.

While Short and Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Jim Smith were applauded for their communication with the media, it was made aware by other members that many residents did not have access to the Internet or radio to receive updates.

“I think we, as a municipality, did a great job communicating,” said Board of Health Director Chris Cooke-Gibbs. “There was a sense of effort to communicate with the public what we did know, but we need to work on making contact with our elders in the community who are shut in during these times.”

As for communicating with the powers that be controlling the town’s electricity, the group was well aware of the struggles officials faced.

Short reiterated what he said at a recent committee meeting, that information from JCP&L was either lacking or inaccurate most of the time.

It wasn’t until the final weekend of the outages that officials were able to properly communicate with Duke Energy, the crew working on restoring power to the area, in person. Before then, interaction with workers was hit or miss at best.

“Half the time (line crews) didn’t know where they were going,” said Bailey. “The other half of the time the would fix a little problem, and then take off. We couldn’t figure out what they were doing.”

A representative should be at the municipality’s command center during a crisis like this, directing workers what to do, according to Davidson. Whether the company is willing to do that or not remains to be seen.

While approaches on how to make communications better during crises in the future may differ, there’s one topic that everyone can agree on.

Sandy, and her wrath, won’t soon be forgotten. 

Tracy Tobin November 28, 2012 at 10:30 PM
Jason's article covers the Mayor's 2 hour meeting at a very high level and touches on the most critical issue. However, all of the participants contributed facts, real life obstacles to the recovery and ideas/suggestions on how to improve our response capabilities. The answers will require cooperation from JCP&L, the State BPU, Morris County, Legislators and the Governor. I know the Mayor will have more meetings and will work with all departments and volunteers to see how workable solutions can be developed to the issues, ideas and suggestions presented at the meeting. Some of the keys will be increased cooperation between the Township and School systems, more volunteers for our CERT team, engaging all forms of communications methods and increased involvement by residents and non-governmental organizations in the Township. We all hope that we never experience a weather event of this severity again. One of the few ways to avoid an outage of this duration again is to prepare for a major event as best we can. If we don't, it is virtually a sure thing that Father Nature will bite us on the bottom again.
roger freiday November 29, 2012 at 12:30 PM
Enough on the mayor and his vacation, this is politically motivated clap trap. We should return the dispatch to local control, whatever miniscule savings were derived sure bit us on the butt, not to mention problems with everyday emergency calls. Let us not forget the central player in this travesty, JCP&L. The rest of you all may have had issues with them for a couple years, with me it's been since I moved here over 40 years ago. The stunk then, and stink even WORSE NOW. There is not a stone I have not turned over, not one politico or BPU official I have not bugged about their MISERABLE record, outdated equipment, and LACK of local power line crews. Results garnered so far - ZIPPITY DOO
Jason Koestenblatt (Editor) November 29, 2012 at 01:13 PM
Kevin - I'm going to agree with Roger here. You've made your stance and point clear on how you feel about the mayor's judgment. This article, however, has nothing to do with that, rather, the town's employees discussing what worked and didn't during and after the storm. Just because you pull a line from the story and try to expand on it doesn't mean it's a relevant point. That being said, please stay on topic. Thanks!
Deryk McBain November 29, 2012 at 02:11 PM
As a new resident to Long Valley (11 months), I have read nothing but great things being done by people during Sandy, and such a wonderful community spirit that exists among residents. The leadership shown by the tireless efforts of Mr Ken Short is most heartening, and it is pleasing to see that his genuine dedication to the township and its people comes from the heart. The only constant negatives that keep on festering over the efforts of the heroes like Mr Short, are the nasty comments I keep reading, that keep coming from the same person. Thank goodness that person is so out of line in the majority of minds. With people like Mr Ken Short doing what he is best at, I look forward to many good years in Long Valley.
Domino November 29, 2012 at 03:30 PM
Goodness! These rabid Ken Short supporters (a couple of pals with multiple handles) will say anything. I don't think the word "hero" applies here, unless heroism is defined as the ability to manuever under the limbo stick on a beach in Aruba with a cocktail in one hand and a cigar in the other. Please !!! Now the question is, all of this heroism aside, how do we effectively move forward to handle the next storm that is most certainly coming? How do you make it easy for all of your residents to be aware of what is going on? How can all of the neighboring communities work with each other? What pressure can be placed on JCPL now (like is being done to LIPA in NY) to improve their performance?
12345678 November 29, 2012 at 04:25 PM
I've been living in LV for over twenty five years now and I've come to expect the worst of JCP&L. I'm not sure what can be done about it and honestly, we seem to be able to deal with it a lot better than some of the posters here. I was pleasantly surprised when our power was restored after ten days, I was expecting to be out more than two weeks... I agree, dispatch should be returned to the local level.
PatienceWorth November 29, 2012 at 04:54 PM
That would be much appreciated, Jason. Mr. Nedd and his various pseudonyms banged the drum endlessy, 24/7 on where the township officials were physically at one point or another. Then not a single person showed up and asked a question -- it was adults looking for answers and solutions at the meeting, not children/child trying to politically smear and harass. And that child wasn't even in Long Valley, obviously. It is a shame The Patch fell for it. Many sites have message limits or simply ban trolls who spam mesage boards with the same post time and again. Definition Troll (Internet) From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia In Internet slang, a troll ( /ˈtroʊl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is someone who posts inflammatory,[1] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[2] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.While the word troll and its associated verb trolling are associated with Internet discourse, media attention in recent years has made such labels subjective, with trolling describing intentionally provocative actions and harassment outside of an online context. For example, mass media has used troll to describe "a person who defaces Internet tribute sites with the aim of causing grief to families."[4][5]
PatienceWorth November 29, 2012 at 05:12 PM
And Nedd's first act as a "one and done" committeeman was to try and vote himself an enormous raise in salary. First act. Very first act. Why does everything here devolve into a therapy session for Kevin Nedd horrendous, embarrassing attempt at political service? Jason, chill this guy down.
PatienceWorth November 29, 2012 at 05:58 PM
Kevin Nedd: " I merely suggested an increase in committeeman monetary compensation.." Oh. "Merely". Never mind.

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