More generators, more training and pet-friendly shelters are prepared for Maine’s next emergency.

LEWISTON – Maine is better prepared now to handle an ice storm of the magnitude of the 1998 storm, according to emergency management leaders. Some of the improvements in the last decade include:

• Federally mandated pet-friendly emergency shelters. If people had to evacuate their homes, pets would not have to be left behind as they were in 1998.

• Radio communications and overall coordination among state, local and county police, fire and rescue have improved.

• There are more generators throughout Maine in public buildings, and possibly in more homes.

“As a state we were prepared. Every little town responded incredibly well,” said Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for Maine Emergency Management Agency, of the ’98 ice storm. But the ice storm was “a wake-up call” that emergency planning and coordination could be better, she said, and EMA directors across the state have since implemented detailed plans, purchased equipment and organized volunteers for Maine’s next major emergency.

Funding stream

In 1999, Maine began receiving more federal money for emergency planning and response. After 9/11, federal Homeland Security money grew, Miller said, estimating that Maine has received about $70 million in the last decade.

In Androscoggin County that money has meant better resources than 1998, said Joanne Potvin of the Androscoggin Emergency Management Agency. One area is technology and communication.

“Ten years ago many town radios had two frequencies, two channels,” Potvin said. That limited how much fire, police and rescue could talk to each other in their towns and in neighboring communities. “Now we have radios that have upward of 30 to 40 channels. They can talk to many more departments.The coordination in the field is better.”

In Oxford County a decade ago, there were 44 identified emergency shelters but none of the shelters had any equipment and they were sporadically manned with available volunteers.

Today, the county maintains the same number of shelters, with special focus on 17 regional shelters in public schools. The county’s emergency management director, Scott Parker, said “our expectations are much higher now than they were 10 years ago. All of our emergency medical service, fire and police chiefs, and hospitals are totally involved in solving problems,” largely because all the counties in Maine have been required to update and revise county-wide emergency response plans.

“I think we’re much better prepared in the town of Jay than we were 10 years ago,” Town Manager Ruth Marden said, explaining that the town’s work in establishing an emergency response plan for pandemic flu helped officials fully identify emergency resources and coordinate how those resources can be best matched in case of emergency.

Of all the changes made in the last decade, planning and training is the most dramatic, Miller said. “I don’t want to discount generators, but improvement in planning and training will have the longest-lasting impact.”

Firefighters “without a doubt, are the backbone of the county,” Parker said, especially at leadership levels. “The majority of our fire chiefs, deputy chiefs and emergency management services chiefs have all taken incident-command training,” he said, and the county’s EMA office has grown from one full-time and one-part time employee to three full-time workers.

“I think our county is in a very good situation now,” Parker said. “Look at what happened in Bethel, and also with the Patriot’s Day storm.”

Bring the pets

During the ’98 ice storm “a lot of people didn’t go to shelters because they couldn’t take their pets,” Potvin said, a reaction seen again during the evacuations for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the recent wildfires in California.

Parker said the hurricanes really focused attention on families’ refusal to leave pets behind, with people choosing to remain in dangerous situations with their animals instead of moving to shelters.

Franklin County Emergency Agency Deputy Director Olive Toothaker remembers “it was an ordeal just trying to get people to leave their homes and leave their pets behind to go to a shelter to get warm and get a hot meal,” she said, knowing that the pet-friendly shelters will help speed up any future emergency evacuation.

In Oxford County, the EMA office has established a 12-member Community Animal Response Team to set up shelters for pets.

States that receive any federal emergency aid at all must now establish pet-friendly shelters, which Maine has done. Pet-friendly is defined as shelters keeping pets warm and fed, but does not necessarily mean that pets will be able to be inside buildings with people.

The emergency shelter for the Lewiston-Auburn region is now the Park Avenue Elementary School in Auburn. In case of an evacuation, a large outdoor tent with heat and lights will be set up for animals. It would be up to pet owners to care for their pets while in the tented shelter, Potvin said.

More generators

During the ’98 ice storm not enough generators were available in public buildings, including police and fire stations. That, Miller said, made it tough for emergency-responders to do their jobs. “We had to bring generators up from the Massachusetts National Guard.”

In the last three years $2 million has been spent on providing generators for more public buildings in Androscoggin County, and to ensure there are large generators at regional emergency shelters. In the next round of federal money another $1 million will be spent on generators, Miller said.

In Franklin County, EMA Director Tim Hardy has helped towns win grants to buy generators for public buildings. The county has also established 11 “warming” shelters that can be used for dining and showering for people who would rather stay in their own homes overnight, but who need some services during the day.

Oxford County has also spent some of the $2 million it has received in federal aid to purchase generators for shelters and first-responding agencies.

There’s no data of how many homes have bought generators, but it’s likely that more homeowners bought a generator after the ice storm, Miller said.

At her Readfield home, she and her husband went without electricity for eight days. A wood stove, manned by Miller’s husband, “kept the home fires burning,” she said. They get water from their well, and no electricity meant no running water. “We didn’t have a home generator. We do now,” she said.

Five rules to be prepared

1. Plan together for an emergency. Talk with family about what kinds of things might happen, such as a flood or a winter storm without electricity.

2. Build a home disaster supply kit with whatever you’d need if you had to stay in your house and couldn’t get to the store for days. One item in the kit should be a battery-powered radio.

3. Have a family communications plan for how to get in touch with each other during an emergency.

4. Stay informed. Read the newspaper, stay tuned to weather alerts.

5. Think about your neighbors.

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Source: Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency

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