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Public Dodges Response Hearing

First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and Deputy Fire Chief Jon Gottfried showed up at the Representative Town Meeting Public Protection Committee well prepared to address Westport's emergency response to the March 13 nor'easter. All that was missing was an audience.

"There were enough complaints over the course of the storm we figured we would get a few people here," said Gottfried after last night's meeting. He added, "Either people have short memories or in the end they were pleased enough with the response."

The public hearing was posted and publicized. When the hour rolled around, there were six members of the media, six members of the committee, three emergency services personnel and Joseloff inside the meeting room and no one else.

Committee Chairman Dick Lowenstein didn't want to focus on the lack of an audience. There were still important lessons to learn and good information to be passed on about how to prepare for future storms.

For one, Gottfired recommends residents maintain a traditional touch-dial telephone that plugs directly into the wall jack. When the power goes out so do modems, cable phones and cable TV. Even wireless phones can be useless. "In a lot of cases you might lose power but you don't lose the phones," said Gottfried, referring to the traditional kind.

One of Westport's cell towers, operated by AT&T and Verizon and located on Bayberry Lane, has a power generator but it alone can't service the entire town.

Gottfried also talked about the Fire Department's ability to override the WWPT 90.3 FM Wrecker's Radio broadcast. However if the general luck during the storm wasn't rotten enough, the station's transmitter happened to be down for maintenance at the time.

Joseloff noted the town has undertaken numerous steps to be considered a storm ready community. They are tied in to the meteorological service and monitor for severe weather.

When the storm hit, the call center lit up. On average, the emergency dispatchers get 15 calls a day in Westport according to Gottfried. On March 13, they got 219. The numbers died off over the next few days but volume remained high.

Meanwhile, the CodeRed system was busy attempting to keep residents up to speed on information. Capable of thousands of automated calls in minutes, the system far outpaces the state system by the deputy chief's measure. But even good technology has its limits. "There were so many calls coming into the queue the system couldn't keep up. The screen was flashing. I've never seen that happen," said Gottfried.

Gottfried said in the end, things could have been far worse back in March. The storm took place while it was relatively warm. Facilities like the library and the senior center were available for those that needed them. "We don't want to sit here biting our fingernails," he said. If necessary the department would dip into a deficit to make sure public safety isn't compromised.

In preparing for future storms, the fire department will carry more chainsaws on the trucks in order to quickly clear roads for emergency access. Also, despite budget cutbacks, if a situation proves dire enough they will temporarily hire more firefighters to handle it.

Joseloff reminded the committee that storms can happen anytime and preparations before and after the nor'easter will help gird Westport for the next one. He noted hurricane season looms and the region is overdue for a strong winter storm "This was a test run," said Joseloff.

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