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Lessons from last year help officials prep for upcoming winter

December 16, 2009
LAKES REGION — A year ago the Lakes Region was covered in ice and experienced numerous power outages, some that lasted for several days and prompted local officials to open emergency shelters. As winter weather closes back in on the region, many local officials feel they are better equipped to reach out to residents should another weather-related emergency arise.

"The problem last year in the ice storm was notifying people. We've stepped up communications capabilities since then," said Tilton Police Captain Owen Wellington.

A move to the Nixle Communications system now gives Tilton police and emergency personnel a means to send out notifications to residents who sign up for the service about where they can find help in an emergency.

"If we've opened a shelter we can let people know through Nixle and we can also request that they check on any elderly neighbors and notify us if they need assistance," Wellington said.

Nixle sends out notices through computers and cell phones. While computers may not be operable in a power outage, cell phones can still be accessed. The system minimizes how many they need to contact in person.

Belmont was one of the first towns to adopt the Nixle notification system and Police Chief Vincent Baiochetti said it has been a worthwhile tool. He has used Nixle on several occasions already and recently added Twitter to his capabilities for public notification.

"I send out a lot of warnings. Wind advisories, storm warnings, anything that's going to affect public safety," Baiochetti said.

He also has been allowed emergency access to an electronic sign on Route 3 in Belmont and the town has a sign at the Park and Ride they can use to spread information.

"Allen Kasiewicz owns the board out there and has been gracious enough to let us use it if we need to. We can let him know about a situation and he'll post it on the board," he said.

In Moultonboro selectmen recently voted to adopt the Code Red system for community-wide notification. Similar to Nixle, people can sign up to receive emergency alerts through their computers, home phones and answering machines or cell phones. Other towns are using door-to-door communications when an emergency arises and all may still need to should a massive power outage occur, rendering electronic communications useless.

Gilford also uses Nixle. However, the big issue they are dealing with stemmed from sheltering problems that arose last year. Fire Chief James Hayes is the Emergency Management Director for the town and said when some parts of town lost power, he opened a shelter at the high school. Gilford's outage was not as widespread though, and things returned to normal faster than many towns.

"The problem was we had people from Gilmanton and Belmont at our shelter, too. Since our town wasn't bad, school's were ready to re-open but we still had people using the shelter," he said.

Refining the sheltering process and addressing better communications, Hayes said, were two lessons he took away from last year's storm.

"We've learned we need to have a whole variety of communications methods. I went to an Emergency Management meeting that gave us a number of ways we can accomplish that in the future," he said.

Sanbornton Fire Chief John DeSilva said his town has not invested in systems like Nixle or Code Red. He attended the same meeting as Hayes though and there they learned of communications methods found to be successful in other parts of the state. He, too, will integrate these into his emergency plans.

"I have a list of local places where I can rent emergency road signs to be placed in strategic places in town to notify people," he said.

He will also turn to resources like the post office and even pizza delivery staff to help hand out notices. When power goes out, calls for pizza delivery go up, making it an ideal means to communicate with residents.

"Another thing we found is that we split into teams last year and went door-to-door in some areas of town. What we learned from that is we might do it even sooner the next time," said DeSilva.

Being rural communities, Sanbornton and Gilford have many residents with wood stoves in their homes who can at least stay warm when power is out but people everywhere should have other preparations in place to endure a prolonged outage.

"Number one would be having a battery operated radio. Local radio stations will provide information on long the outage may be expected to last and where people can go for shelter and warming stations," DeSilva said.

Hayes echoed his advice. Both men also said residents should become familiar with the location of their town's emergency shelter and move to it when necessary for their health and well-being.

DeSilva cautioned that generators should never be used inside a building or near an opening like a door or window. Candles and lanterns should always be used cautiously and kept away from flammable objects. Each home should also have a good supply of flashlights and fresh batteries. Safety should be the number one concern at all times.

Residents of towns with Nixle, Twitter and Code Red notification systems are encouraged to sign up through their local police department Web sites or call for more information.

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