Sara Swanson

Is Manchester prepared for an emergency? Freedom Township soon will be!

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Outdoor emergency siren coverage of Washtenaw County.

If you were outdoors in the village on Saturday at noon, you may have heard the monthly test of the county-wide outdoor emergency warning sirens. However, if you were anywhere in the Manchester area, other than within a mile of the siren located on the water tower next to Chi Bro Park, you probably heard nothing. That is because while the county has 111 outdoor warning sirens, only one is located in the Manchester 4-township area. In fact, only two total are located in the whole of the southwest corner of the county. Why is this? As David Halteman, director of Emergency Management and Metro Dispatch for the county, explained at the September 19th non-profit roundtable meeting, they are placed where they “get the most bang for the buck.” And in fact, 82% of the population of our county lives within earshot of one of these sirens.

Last March, a large portion of the area, including the village, lost power for more than day (some up to five days) due to a wind storm. Some township residents, trapped at their homes by fallen trees without power, called the Community Resource Center for help. This led to the question, “what emergency preparedness plans are in place for the Manchester community?” and to the topic of the most recent roundtable. With the very recent devastation in the south caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, it is hard not to read reports of the humanitarian crises US citizens are living through caused by weather emergencies and not wonder if we, our families, and our community is adequately prepared for an emergency.

At the round table, Halteman handed out a Community Emergency Preparedness Workbook and Guidelines created by Washtenaw County. It is downloadable in it’s entirety here: www.ewashtenaw.org/government/departments/emergency_management (click on the link under “Workbook & Guidelines”). He emphasized that while FEMA recommends that everyone needs to be prepared for up to three days of an emergency, he recommends everyone be prepared for 10 days, citing the 2003 power outage which lasted up to 10 days in places in Washtenaw. In addition to how to create an emergency supply kit containing water, food, clothing, bedding, first aid supplies, tools, sanitation items, medication, and important documents, it lays out what you need for an evacuation kit, a disaster kit for your car, how to create a communications plan and the importance of checking on neighbors.

While the county’s emergency services department serves as the coordination point for many of the training, planning, response and recovery resources for a large scale event/disaster, they work with Red Cross to provide emergency food, water & shelters in the case of an emergency. Laura Seyfried, director of the Community Resource, talked about her experience with Red Cross during the the power outage in March. There was not much that Red Cross could do to help individuals, and there were no nearby shelters to direct them to. Halteman explained that those living rural areas are expected to be more self-sufficient than those living in cities. While an emergency localized in Manchester (like a tornado) would receive help quickly, in a widespread emergency, urban areas will receive help first as that is where the highest concentrations of people are located.

Everyone should prepare individually for an emergency, but not everyone will and it is the most at risk of our residents who are unlikely to be prepared if an emergency strikes: the elderly, the ill, those on fixed incomes, and even those who are new to the area. If the county and Red Cross have to direct the bulk of its resources elsewhere, and not everyone can be counted on to prepare individually, can municipalities like the village and townships create their own emergency plans? While the village currently has no emergency plan independent of the county’s in place, Halteman does encourage smaller communities, even though they are not required to, to create their own Emergency Operations Plan tailored to local needs and concerns. One local township, Freedom, is doing just that.

Matt Little, member of the Freedom Township Planning commission, attended the roundtable meeting to talk about the brand new commission Freedom Township created with the goal of having an emergency preparedness plan tailored for Freedom Township by spring. Because of its agricultural character, Freedom Township faces scenarios other areas of the county might not. For instance, if there is a natural gas leak requiring evacuation, what does a farmer do with his 2,000 head of dairy cattle? The commission is meeting for the first time this month and consists of two township officials, a local business owner, and an emergency specialist who is also a township resident. Although Freedom Township faces increased risk of gas and oil leaks because of the number of pipelines running through the township, planning for weather related emergencies is at the top of their list. They plan to hold a public meeting after the first of the year.

Little talked about how Freedom Township Hall is centrally located in Freedom Township and is nearly the highest point, so would provide the perfect place for an outdoor warning siren. Unfortunately, while there was federal funding a decade ago for warning sirens, all external funding sources are gone. Halteman explained that if municipalities want to install outdoor warning sirens themselves, they can be hooked up to the countywide alert system, but that the county can’t help with the funding and currently sirens cost $19,500 with additional yearly maintenance costs and batteries which need to be replaced every 5 to 7 years. Dexter Township now has 16 outdoor emergency warning sirens, laid out in a grid pattern, so that wherever you are in the township, if you are outdoors, you can hear it. The township did this on its own with a millage after a tornado destroyed more than 100 homes in Dexter in the spring of 2012. The township had the sirens hooked up to the county wide system but also maintains the ability to activate the sirens themselves.

Little hopes that all four townships and the village will develop their own emergency plans and will be able to come together to share progress and pool resources. While some of us are prepared, others of us are just a blizzard or a heat wave without power away from serious trouble.

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Do you know what to do if you hear the outdoor warning siren? Go indoors and listen to a local emergency alert system radio station. In Washtenaw those stations are WEMU 89.1FM and WWWW 102.9FM. Except the monthly tests, the siren is activated if the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, a severe storm has been detected with damaging winds of 75 mph or greater, a hazardous materials accident has occurred and requires immediate protective action by the public, or an attack on the United States is imminent. Halteman likes to remind people that “if they lose power and don’t have a generator, they most likely have a functioning radio in their vehicle to listen for emergency broadcasts.”

Checklist from Community Emergency Preparedness Workbook & Guidelines from the Washtenaw County Office of the Sheriff Emergency Services Division.

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