Norwich revamping its emergency management department

Norwich — After being appointed emergency management director last February, city paid Fire Chief Kenneth Scandariato opened the door to the city Emergency Operations Center and immediately knew he needed help.

"I went to the building and saw that it was in serious decay and needed a lot of attention," Scandariato recalled. "There was a lot of dated stuff that just had to be trashed and had outlived its usefulness. Some of the stuff I couldn't even give away."

A week later, he brought Laurel Hill Volunteer Fire Department Chief Aaron Westervelt to the building at 10 McKinley Ave. and asked if his volunteers could lead the cleanup task. Meanwhile, Scandariato would rewrite the city’s emergency management plan so the department would become a mostly volunteer support group for the city’s first responders.

Scandariato, who was appointed following the death of Emergency Management Director Gene Arters, is among the city leaders who have asked the paid and volunteer fire departments to take on the task of reorganizing a department so neglected, it housed equipment dating back to the Korean War.

The building, Scandariato said, “became a collection a point for unused broken toys,” on top of the disorganized collection of obsolete emergency management equipment.

Coils of chain, stacks of “road closed” signs and road block posts, empty barrels of  plumbing compound, overturned tables, chairs, new and used tarps cluttered the space, along with stacks of shelter cots dating back to the Korean War, Westervelt said.

A still-registered light blue 1975 Chevy Blazer bore the municipal plate 82-NO. It had been used to by Emergency Management officials to survey scenes of emergencies, Scandariato said.

“I have transitioned the mission to a support group,” Scandariato said, “thereby eliminating the need for a response fleet, minimizing the costs associated with managing the emergency operations logistics part of the local emergency operations plan."

“We have six fire departments (and Norwich Public Utilities, police and Public Works departments) for response purposes,” Scandariato said. “This is why it was logical to eliminate without any negative impact the response part of the EOC.”

The cleaning volunteers sorted and took inventory of the contents of the entire building. They tested the city’s supply of 120,000 doses of K-1 radiation exposure tablets in the event of an emergency at the Millstone nuclear power station. They tested and calibrated hazardous materials response equipment. They kept the equipment needed for emergency response and for the center’s new role as emergency support.

Scandariato called American Ambulance, The William W. Backus Hospital and fire departments to try to give away anything they might need. The city donated the 1950s-era cots to Haiti.

The department sold the Blazer and other unused and rusted vehicles and machines at auction, raising $19,000 to make critical repairs to the badly leaking roof. The leak had damaged the building’s heating system, leaving it without heat for months. The building needed electrical and plumbing work, new locks, a security system with cameras and alarms.

Scandariato brought Michael Caplet, coordinator of the eastern Region 4 of the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security to the building and expressed that Norwich is a regional and state asset. The city has a regional shelter, the region’s nuclear emergency shelter center and regional hazardous materials handling equipment.

Scandariato obtained a $25,000 grant to fit out the city’s emergency operations command center at Norwich Public Utilities with computers and software.

Six 40-yard trailers of debris from the McKinley Avenue building were hauled away and dumped, Westervelt said. The department fleet was cut from six to two vehicles.

That left the group with a mostly empty building with dirty, water stained and damaged walls, floors and shelves.

David Waterman, a lifetime Laurel Hill volunteer firefighter, took over from there. He tried to wash the walls, but the stains wouldn’t come off. Waterman spent most of this fall at the center, including six days a week from just before Halloween to Thanksgiving week painting the entire interior of the building. He repaired damaged drywall and in the upstairs loft replaced a railing of solid plywood with chicken wire so workers up above could see the goings-on below.

Waterman, 61, had worked as a general tradesman at the former Norwich Hospital until it closed in 1996. He painted walls in the former Kettle building and many of the wards while he worked there. He then worked on bridges for the state Department of Transportation. Back surgery sidelined him, and he transferred to the University of Connecticut. A second back surgery forced him to retire.

He said climbing the ladder and painting doesn’t bother him, but he can’t do heavy lifting. He hopes his work at the emergency management center will lead others to consider volunteering. When he finished painting the EOC, he spent hours painting the Laurel Hill fire station last week.

“It gives me something to do,” Waterman said. “It keeps me going.”

Waterman is urging fellow Norwich residents to join the volunteer corps, expressing concern that critical agencies are having a hard time finding volunteers.

Laurel Hill Chief Westervelt and the Laurel Hill fire department were tasked with reviving the city’s defunct volunteer emergency response team. Westervelt found few roster rolls or training records for the defunct Community Emergency Response Team. Westervelt enlisted the Laurel Hill Fire Department board to start from scratch and create a new CERT. Training will be done in conjunction with the department’s training for services such as CPR, traffic control and electric and gas safety.

CERT members will have specific training for human and pet emergency shelter management, communications, road closures, filling sandbags and other support services.

“We want as many that want to be part of it,” Westervelt said. “In the first batch, eight people were interviewed, and six were interviewed in the second batch.”

The application for CERT volunteers is posted under the Emergency Management Department on the city website, www.norwich-ct.org.

c.bessette@theday.com

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