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Everything you need to know in an emergency

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CORNWALL — Most people like to think they are prepared for nearly any emergency. But what does it mean to be truly prepared?

Around here, the threats are typically from power outages and from being snowed in. Many Northwest Corner residents have generators and keep stores of extra food and water in their homes. With those emergency supplies, it’s possible to go without necessities and to still have most comforts:  heat, hot meals, hot showers, lights and television.

As last October’s nor’easter bore down —with its blanket of snow and the extended power outage it caused —  one local family was hunkered down in their home and ready for the worst. A generator was ready to be switched on and there was plenty of firewood on hand for heat.

“They did everything right in installing the generator,” said Nevton Dunn, Cornwall’s emergency management director. “It was installed by a professional away from the house and 10 feet behind the garage.”

So why did the family nearly die of carbon monoxide poisoning?

“There was a temperature inversion, no wind and the exhaust built up and settled around the house.  They had their fireplace going which creates a vacuum and sucks in a lot of outside air. It also sucked in a lot of carbon monoxide.”

The solution: Run the generator intermittently to allow exhaust to dissipate. About six hours of down time is all that is needed.

A little bit of knowledge such as that goes a long way in emergency situations. Dunn, in conjunction with the Cornwall Association, has organized a forum called, “Are you ready for the next storm?”

It will be held Saturday, Feb. 11, from 10 a.m. to noon at Cornwall Town Hall. It promises coffee and experts armed with information on everything from a look at the town’s emergency plan to all one needs to know about selecting, “exercising” and operating a generator.

That plan is an ever-evolving manual of potential scenarios and possible responses. For instance, a train derailment would prompt a check of the manual for up-to-date information on what is routinely transported and might require a hazardous materials clean up or evacuation.

“But you can’t really train for these kind of events,” Dunn said, although he attends as many preparedness sessions, offered to volunteers by the state, as he can. “It’s always a work in progress and a response to what has happened.”

Most important: volunteers

Sheltering people for six days at Cornwall Consolidated School taught a lot. Emergency service planners learned that many, many volunteers need to be on hand for that work.

“People I didn’t even know lived in town came in to help,” Dunn recalled. “One guy came in off the street and cooked for six days. We also went around to people we knew would be willing to help. Some of them didn’t even know we had to open the shelter.”

Out of the many willing responses he got — which Dunn said is not surprising in Cornwall — he formed a Civilian Emergency Response Team (CERT).

These volunteers will begin training Feb. 7 and spend seven weeks learning how to ease the burden on emergency services by running the shelter and doing door-to-door checks and all the vital duties that take a little training and a lot of common sense and concern for the community.

No phones

Communication is a big problem. Cell service, which is limited in Cornwall under the best of circumstances, was out during the October storm. Landlines were down. Radio alerts were available, but not everyone in town can get the local broadcasts.

The mass notification system was used, but many were not able to retrieve the phone messages with information about vital resources.

Dunn explained that a lot of people have switched to cable-provided phone service. Those who opted not to transfer their old number, like Dunn himself, found that their new number is not listed anywhere. The same goes for cell phone numbers and Internet phone services such as Skype (which is all some people have now).

A supplemental community phone book is being compiled. Anyone can register any phone or email at www.cornwallassociation.org. Its applications are endless. It can also serve as a way for those near and far to keep tabs on family in Cornwall or for those who are out-of-town during an emergency and want to know what’s going on.  

Firefighters will continue their sweep of homes to check on people routinely in need of extra care, or  for people in need who have no way to reach help.

The needs of a generator

A lot of generators failed in October, due to not being maintained, operated properly, or having run out of gas.

Dunn anticipates generators to be a popular topic at the forum.

“A lot of people bought generators after the last storm. We want to make sure they will use them safely. There is a lot to know about capacity and frequency stability and exercising that generator. You can’t just let it sit for long periods and expect it will start right up.  

“People go shopping for generators without even knowing how their water heater is powered or thinking everything will just plug into it.”

There is also a concern for the cumulative emissions and noise.

“It’s shocking how much fuel generators use. We learned that a lot of people don’t use them intermittently. If they have plenty of fuel, they turn them on and leave them on day and night.”

A team that includes a generator expert, two electricians and the local fire marshal will be on hand to speak to all of that, and answer questions.

Richard Schlesinger will talk about a safe house program. Dunn said it should be a very workable approach in Cornwall. People with generators would volunteer to open their homes in an emergency to neighbors for warming, hot food, showers and overnight stays, as needed.

Dave Williamson will give a presentation on carbon monoxide poisoning and other safety issues.

Emergency food storage

Torrington Area Health District will provide pamphlets with suggestions for emergency food storage, with information on types of food to keep and how to preserve and store it safely.

For many, the first step toward being prepared is acceptance. There will be another big storm, and it could be just as bad, or worse as anything experienced, and it could come quickly, catching area residents by surprise. This year’s double whammy of last year’s tropical storm and the nor’easter, just two months apart, multiplied the complications —and increased concerns about a future of unpredictable weather.

Whether global warming is a fact or not, whether climate change is based on human impact or cyclical, there are marked changes going on that will continue to result in extreme weather occurrences, Dunn predicted.

Being prepared is not just about personal choices. Dunn said that everyone who volunteers to help keep residents safe during an emergency is dedicated and will often spend days away from their own home and family.

“I am always amazed by the  commitment here,” he said.

“But while they are carrying out their difficult duties, they are also worrying about their own families. If we can get everyone better educated and prepared, volunteers won’t have to spend so much time putting themselves in danger and not doing what they need to do for their families.”

For some, there are financial and other constraints. Keeping oil, propane and vehicle gas tanks filled as advised is not always possible. Even a small generator is pricey to buy and install.

The forum will offer small-scale solutions and incremental steps one could take to be better prepared. Most helpful may be the sharing of, and learning from, the experiences of volunteers who were called out to help people in dire straits.

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