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East Lyme tests new Emergency Operations Center in statewide hurricane drills

East Lyme — While residents enjoyed the seasonably warm and sunny day Tuesday morning, town officials were busy receiving real-time data about Hurricane Thompson, a simulated Category 3 storm approaching the shoreline.

Representatives of all East Lyme agencies gathered inside the state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, in the new public safety building at 277 W. Main St. in Niantic for a multistate drill that began at 9 a.m. and concluded after three and a half hours.

Nine East Lyme officials participated, including First Selectman Kevin Seery, Deputy Selectwoman Anne Santoro, schools Superintendent Jeffrey Newton, Director of Public Works Joe Bragaw, police Chief Michael Finkelstein and Deputy Emergency Management Director Julie Wilson. Representatives from the Senior Center, Operations and Communications also joined the drill.

"We follow the injects and react as a community, state and region," Finkelstein said, pointing to four large, flat-screen smart TV monitors on one wall in the EOC. In mock drills or simulations, injects are new environmental conditions that prompt teams to change course in response, he later explained.

Beneath each TV monitor, large scrolling LED signs featured the latest information about the hurricane’s anticipated storm surge level, landfall timing, rainfall, wind speed and movement.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane drill involved three neighboring states in New England: Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. All of Connecticut's 169 municipalities had the opportunity to participate in the simulation to test everyone’s capability, according to Finkelstein, but he did not know how many chose to partake in the training.

“I think definitely the new facility certainly makes it easier and more conducive to what we’re doing. We'd have a difficult time doing this in the old facility," Finkelstein said, regarding the EOC’s more ample space and upgrades in technology.

Prior to the move into the new building, hurricane drills at the old EOC took place in a smaller room and involved three-ring binders, stacks of paper and the use of a fax machine, which slowed down information gathering and response. The new EOC features a laptop and desk space for an official from every town agency. Email and shared drives allow electronic documents to be accessed through a secure network provided by the EOC’s improved technology interface and equipment.

“We can’t have everyone here for 24 hours,” Seery said. The plan is for each town agency official to have an alternate to take shifts in helping to monitor the EOC's real-time updates. This is why he asked Santoro to join the training; it was her first time participating.

Finkelstein said that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the agencies became adept at using Microsoft Teams. This was the first time the communications app was used during the hurricane drills.

The first monitor screen mirrored a Zoom meeting from one of Finkelstein’s three desktop computers at a wide desk at the back of the room. The call connected the participating municipalities in the three states. The next monitor was set to a live feed from the National Weather Service, which provided an overview of the hypothetical hurricane. A third monitor was being used as a news feed at the state level. The fourth monitor was tuned to HURREVAC, a tool provided by the National Hurricane Program to help municipalities make decisions based on updates specific to their area.

During the drill, the teams reviewed the operational steps they would take and preparations they would make at each phase of the hurricane’s approach. At some points, given the trajectory of the storm, the team discussed adjustments to their plans based on the most recent advisories. For example, Finkelstein said, the U.S. Coast Guard may decide to close ports or restrict traffic on specific roads.

The Zoom call periodically paused, so teams of drill participants could have discussions in breakout sessions.

For example, coastal towns discussed whether they would call for voluntary or mandatory evacuations. The team noted that it was ideal to evacuate people with disabilities and transport vulnerable seniors to adult children living further inland who might be able to provide them with more assistance than being alone at a shelter. The group also discussed sharing emergency resources from neighboring towns, depending on which ones were most impacted by the storm.

“We get to see what Rhode Island and Massachusetts are doing. We get ideas on how other towns work on multiple levels,” Finkelstein said about the added benefits of East Lyme participating in the hurricane drill.

Each town was asked to assess its strengths and weaknesses at the end of the drill.

“While the drill is very effective in getting us to practice the response, it’s crucial not to have any technical problems,” Finkelstein said, citing that the team was keeping track of issues for the technical staff to address.

“The things we need to work on are bugs in here,” he added.

“For me, reducing some of the external stimuli, especially if it were a real situation and I’m trying to stay focused,” Santoro said.

“We can’t hear when we put stuff up there,” Wilson said. “That’s OK. That’s why we drill.” She reiterated the need for a sound bar or speaker system for over the TV monitors. She also suggested that everyone with a laptop has the option to use a headset for added focus.

Finkelstein said because East Lyme is within the emergency preparedness zone for the Millstone Power Station in Waterford, the EOC was completely paid for by a Nuclear Safety Emergency Fund grant, not taxpayer dollars.

“We work to overplan,” he said of storm preparation.

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