Saturday, March 17, 2007

Massachusetts Towns Disaster Response Plans

What are they and where are they?
On the South Shore answers vary with 'who wants to know?', 'not anytime soon', 'they're around here somewhere I'm pretty sure' and 'prepare to kiss your disabled ass goodbye' being the gist of the responses from various town officials . This Patriot Ledger piece recaps their survey of twenty three South Shore Communities. And, to be fair the majority of those towns did have plans in place. Do the plans have a chance of being effective? That's a question for another day.

Towns give the runaround: Several on South Shore evasive when asked about disaster response plans

By Patriot Ledger staff

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and pretty much every disaster, emergency management officials tell citizens about the need to have survival plans.

Communities are supposed to have plans, too, and federal regulations stipulate that the public can see them. But if you want to find yours, be prepared to dig.

In a survey of 23 South Shore communities, 14 made their full emergency plans available, six refused and three provided partial reports.

Reporters who made the requests usually identified themselves as members of the public to see what a citizen might encounter when requesting the information. Several said they were questioned about why they wanted the information.

In other cases, reporters were sent to the wrong person or department, and subsequent phone calls from The Patriot Ledger found that the information was housed elsewhere.

In some cases, the plans that were available had not been updated since 1998.

In Carver, Emergency Management Director Tom Walsh told a reporter who requested a copy of the town’s emergency plan: ‘‘I know what game you’re playing.’’

After the reporter filed her request in writing, as told to do by Walsh, he then told her that she had to specify what information she wanted. Ultimately, Walsh refused to provide a copy of any part of the report.

The portion of Carver east of Route 58 is part of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant emergency planning zone.

Other communities had difficulty locating reports or had reports that were many years out of date. According to federal regulations, the plans are supposed to be updated annually, or more often if changes in the community warrant it.

Some barriers to information that reporters encountered included:

-In Marshfield , a police sergeant used an emergency management network to alert local, state and federal officials to spread information about terror threats and other emergencies to let them know reporters would be asking questions about the report.

Ultimately, he told a reporter he would prepare a document available to the public that excludes sensitive materials such as private phone numbers and tactical response plans.

-In Hanson, a reporter was told that the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency recommended the town not release the report. An agency spokesman said it does not tell communities whether to release reports.

‘‘These are local communities’ plans, and therefore it’s sort of their call,’’ said agency spokesman Peter Judge. ‘‘We wouldn’t tell them, ‘No, you can’t share them,’ or, ‘Yes, you have to share them with everyone.’’’

In many cases, whether a report was made available depended on who was asked.

- In Hingham , an administrative assistant at town hall said the report was unavailable there and a reporter was sent to the fire department. There, he was told that the document was temporarily unavailable and was likely at Fire Chief Mark Duff’s house during the fire department’s move to temporary quarters while the headquarters is being renovated.

But Friday, Duff’s assistant, Kate Knorr, said copies of the plan should be available in seven locations in the town, including the selectmen’s office, the board of health, the dispatch center, and the police department.

In several cases, town staff looked in several different offices before they located the report. Many said no one outside of town government had asked for it before.

State regulations that seem to conflict with federal regulations give municipal officials the ability to turn down requests to view the plans, almost for any reason.

Brian McNiff, spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin, the main interpreter of the state’s records law, said people who are denied access to municipal emergency plans can appeal to Galvin. Galvin was unavailable Friday to explain why or whether state regulations supercede federal regulations.

Judge, the spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said the state is working with cities and towns to try to put the plans on computer systems to make updating them easier.

However, it is unclear whether computerizing them will make them more available to the public. Currently, computerized plans are only available through a password, and cities and towns can charge for copies if individuals request them.

23 S. Shore towns surveyed

Full disclosure: - 14 towns made their full emergency plans available

No disclosure: - 6 towns refused to provide any information

Some info provided: - 3 towns provided partial reports

Copyright 2007 The Patriot Ledger

Transmitted Monday, March 12, 2007

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