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New London - Close to 250 public safety personnel will fan out across the city this weekend for OpSail/Sailfest and its hundreds of thousands of expected attendees.
More than nine months of planning have gone into the weekend, fire Chief Ronald Samul said this week, as volunteers, city and state officials and local, state and federal public safety agencies have collaborated on the city's biggest event since the last OpSail in 2000.
Thursday morning was the final planning session, Samul said. Officials met at Waterford Town Hall to approve an incident action plan that dictates how agencies, from the FBI to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, U.S. Coast Guard and Amtrak police, would work together to ensure a safe event.
"We worked for 12 months on the last OpSail and that was a success, a wonderful event and a safe event that everybody who attended had a good time," Samul said. "It's just a great event for New London Harbor to see those kinds of ships here like we did in the whaling days when tall ships were common on the waterfront."
As Sailfest gets under way today, radio and emergency systems will be set up and tested, Samul said. First-aid and water stations will be set up at the three main venues in the city - State Pier, Waterfront Park and Fort Trumbull - where the ships will dock and be available for tours. Security at the ships will be run by the Coast Guard.
At those same venues, three command center trailers will be erected. Beginning at 7 a.m. Saturday, the command centers will be fully staffed with safety personnel. DEEP will oversee Fort Trumbull, state police will be in charge of security at State Pier, and the New London Police Department will take the lead at City Pier, said Waterford police Chief Murray Pendleton, who is serving as the event's transportation chairman.
A unified command center, which will oversee the three trailers, will be based out of fire department headquarters on Bank Street. Department heads of the involved agencies, including Samul, will work from that base.
"We will support those three command posts to provide the resources they need and, if anything happens, we'll help oversee any extraordinary emergencies," he said. "In this command post will be people who have the authority to make decisions for the agency they represent."
Throughout the day, volunteers from the American Red Cross and emergency medical technicians will walk through the crowds to make sure everyone is safe and hydrated, Samul said.
Protective and emergency services won't only be in the downtown, Samul said.
"The gridlock that's going to happen, it will be very difficult for emergency crews to get around quickly, so we'll need to distribute around the city so we can service the community properly," Samul said.
Ocean Beach Park was the site for three training sessions, Samul said, which presented emergency scenarios that personnel could face during the festivities.
"We wanted to get people thinking about what their responsibilities are and how to handle things when they come up," he said. "We need to make quick decisions to take care of whatever the problem is, and that's how we normally function and that's how we'll function over the two days over the weekend."
Pendleton said two Fourth of July incidents - a fireworks mishap in San Diego and a capsized yacht in Long Island Sound that killed three children - "bring the reality to why you do all this planning.
"Hopefully, we'll be OK," he said.
Asking for patience
As the afternoon progresses, the focus will shift to the annual Sailfest fireworks display, when the New London Police Department will take a bigger role in directing traffic, giving directions and providing service and other assistance for the event, police Deputy Chief Peter Reichard said this week.
Nearly all of the city's approximately 90-person police department will be on duty during the weekend, Reichard said, with most officers downtown on foot or bicycle and working 16-hour shifts.
"We're preparing for people coming in related to the fireworks, and that's what we're gearing up for," Reichard said. "We'll be moving a large number of people into the city as safely as possible with the least amount of confusion as possible, and at the end of event, we want to expedite the process as fast as possible. There's going to be some congestion, and we ask for people to have patience."
Reichard encouraged visitors to use the satellite parking lots and to take the shuttles or public transportation into the city. Street parking will be limited, he said, with most downtown parking restricted to the Water Street or Governor Winthrop Boulevard parking garages. Signs pointing visitors to the satellite lots are up, Pendleton said, and even more people are expected to arrive by train, boat, bus and ferry.
After the fireworks, he said, blinking traffic lights on Route 32 should help ease congestion. Officers will be posted at other key areas to change the lights manually.
"It's been an interesting task," Pendleton said of the planning for what he estimated could be at least 400,000 visitors to the area.
Though it's a bigger weekend with more visitors expected than during the festivities surrounding the annual Sailfest, Reichard said, there's a solid, but fluid, public safety plan in place.
"We're hoping it goes smoothly and the weather cooperates," Reichard said. "We hope everyone enjoys themselves, but do expect some amount of congestion. We want them to make do and have the best experience they can have."