All systems go: Unified command keeps event running smoothly

Elizaldy Hilario, left, and Leopoldo Navarro of New London light up the plaza in front of the City Pier stage as they dance to the bands at the 33rd annual Sailfest in downtown New London Saturday.
Elizaldy Hilario, left, and Leopoldo Navarro of New London light up the plaza in front of the City Pier stage as they dance to the bands at the 33rd annual Sailfest in downtown New London Saturday.

New London If Sailfest had a backstage, it would be in a second-floor room of the fire department on Bank Street.

The Unified Area Command is the go-to place for any snippet of information about the event that draws tens of thousands to downtown New London and Groton.

It is the spot where the coordination among hundreds of law enforcement personnel, emergency responders, the FBI, U.S. Coast Guard and others takes place. Saturday afternoon, the room held about 20 people representing a variety of the agencies; by night-time, there would be about 25.

Modeled after the National Incident Management System that's used to coordinate coverage during major events or emergencies, the statewide version is referred to as an Incident Command System, or ICS.

In the system, Unified Area Command is headquarters, with three additional command posts set up to keep watch at different areas: one at Waterfront Park in New London, one across the river in Groton, and a third, a maritime command post manned by U.S. Coast Guard personnel, at Fort Trumbull State Park.

"So you're going to see this good evolution between local, state and federal law enforcement organizations putting their heads together and their authorities together into one group," said Lt. Nelson Santiago, chief of incident management at Coast Guard Sector New Haven.

New London Fire Chief Ron Samul, who is in charge of coordination, said when information comes into a command post "we will assign people who have the most authority to take care of that (incident)."

When an elderly man drove through a crowd of people at Waterfront Park in July 2006, injuring 28 people, Samul said a mass casualty plan was activated from the Unified Command Post.

Samul gave what he deemed a "classic example" of how the coordination works: a couple of years ago a person had a heart attack on the pier during the fireworks show. There was no way to get an ambulance to the area quickly.

Once Unified Command was notified, EMTs were told to bring the person to the side of the pier and he Coast Guard was instructed to send a boat to pick up the person. The heart attack victim was brought by boat to Coast Guard Station New London at Fort Trumbull, where ambulance crews were waiting.

"Normally you would bring the ambulance to the patient," said Groton City Fire Chief Nicholas DeLia. "In this scenario, with this high of a capacity of people, we bring the patient out to the ambulance."

Saturday of Sailfest is perhaps the busiest day of the year on the river, with the Coast Guard assuming primary responsibility for patrols there. State and local police, as well as the state Department of Environmental Protection, also launch boats.

Santiago said the Coast Guard enforces security zones to keep boats away from the fireworks barges; the agency establishes a 1,000-foot perimeter around the barges.

"This is an event that we do have our boating safety missions, we have our search-and-rescue missions, but today is basically just to protect the public ...," Santiago said. "There are a lot of explosives that are going to be on board those barges, a lot of fireworks, so we try to prevent people from coming in too close, protect the public from this specific incident."

Saturday, in addition to the command posts, crews were dispatched around the city: police walked the streets and patrolled on bicycles; EMTs walked around with medical equipment and rode "gators," or all-terrain vehicles with mini-flatbeds on the back that could serve as stretchers, and the city's Public Works department worked to keep up with trash.

Crowds all around river

At the Unified Command Post, three projection screens are turned on at the front of the room. A city police captain monitors a computer screen, simultaneously being broadcast up front, of traffic cameras trained on various areas downtown, at Waterfront Park, and on the Thames River.

Another screen logs information about incidents being reported, and a third, on this day at least, monitors another key tidbit: a radar screen.

Across the river, in Groton, all units working the venue came to the Eastern Point Volunteer Fire Station in the early afternoon.

Ambulance and fire units from Groton, Ledyard, Stonington, Mystic and Colchester accounted for the approximately 60 people present. They hold a meeting at 4 p.m. to coordinate for the busy night, during which Groton anticipates between 50,000 and 80,000 people for the fireworks.

According to Capt. Robert Tompkins, they borrow golf carts from Shennecossett Golf Course, outfit them with fire extinguishers and medical bags, and put a few paramedics on them. This year they also used two Segways.

On both sides of the river, crews report that any problems tend to crop up near the end of the night.

Tompkins said the command post system streamlines efforts and increases interdepartmental communication. It also increases efficiency, he said, because each group knows what the other is dealing with right away.

"That's the beauty of this whole system," he said. "Police and fire are both in here, in contact with each other as well as their people out on the street."

"Fortunately, we've done this system for a few years now, so all we have to do is tweak it each time," he said. "We're not reinventing the wheel."

Kyle Cheromcha contributed to this report.


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Smaller crowd, but a big show