As parents were getting ready for work and kids getting ready for school on Wednesday, October 21, emergency teams were assembling and preparing for a tornado that was headed directly for Turkey Hill School. It was part of a state-wide drill that had all 160 school districts in the state of Connecticut convening to go into an emergency situation simultaneously. “We did not know what the emergency was going to be. On that day, we were given a scenario that severe thunderstorms with increasing severity were approaching us, ultimately developing into an F-1 tornado, impacting numerous residences, businesses and schools,” explained Orange Schools’ Facilities Director Mike Luzzi. “We were given a bunch of objectives, starting at 8 a.m., during storm impact, cleanup throughout the day and finalization of filling out paperwork for FEMA,” Luzzi said.
“The drill was a test of our system to look at our infrastructure and make adjustments and take on any necessary responsibilities,” he explained. “EOC (Emergency Operations Center) came in and we got on the phone with Governor Malloy and he gave us the scenario. We were required at the end of this drill to sit down and look at what had taken place, look at our deficiencies, look at our strengths and report back to the state.”
The goal was to build the EOC and look at response throughout the town. For storm related issues, a strike team is in place that includes police, fire and public works. The Orange Health Department, Orange Visiting Nurse, CERT members, the school bus companies, the highway department, town clergy and pediatricians also participated during the drill.
“We’re well-staffed for any event,” Luzzi said. This drill, however, showed that utility companies—gas and electric—should be part of the plan. “Relationship building is important up front before an incident occurs,” explained Tino Russo, Assistant Director of Emergency Management.
Typical protocol for any emergency situation is to set up a unified command which includes all of the potential responders and stakeholders. Orange is a bit ahead of other municipalities in that it sets up its unified command once a month as the Emergency Management Advisory Council meets.
“This particular exercise was directed at schools and it happened to be an emergency event that was caused by Mother Nature, a storm, and one of the more difficult types of storms for us as we’ve had no recent experience with tornadoes. A tornado was selected because it is difficult to forecast – often you have a number of minutes when you go from thunderstorm to tornado and not a lot of time to prepare a response,” Russo said. He and Luzzi presented the event and results at the November meeting of the Orange Board of Education.
“Our process of keeping our kids and staff safe at school goes beyond a lockdown drill, but also about emergency management,” Superintendent of Schools Scarpetti said.
This year’s tabletop EPPI (Emergency Preparedness and Planning Initiative)—Governor Malloy’s initiative implanted after Superstorm Sandy—called for four objectives: open up the emergency operations center, which is in the police department and setting up a unified command; practice your protocol and plans and work on communication; make all safe—keeping in mind the safety of our responders; and sheltering, which may not be in place, it may require moving the students to another location.
“Having been through a number of these drills, I think this one worked very well. There are a couple of areas that we need to work on, but that’s the whole idea of this. It’s a continuous process,” Russo said.
By Melissa Nicefaro – Orange Town News Correspondent