Chester board discusses emergency preparedness, new fire station

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Chester Select Board had a light agenda so it could move onto executive session to interview Planning Commission candidates, but took time to discuss emergency preparedness and the status of an emergency services building at its April 19 meeting.

Board members Dan Cote, a risk management consultant, and Ben Whalen, captain of the Chester Fire Department, discuss emergency preparedness training.

The question about emergency preparedness arose when the board was signing the town’s Local Emergency Operations Plan, which must be updated each year after Town Meeting and submitted to the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission by May 1. Board member Dan Cote, who works as a risk management consultant, asked Town Manager David Pisha and Executive Assistant Julie Hance if the town did drills on the document.

Hance told Cote that they did not, and board member Ben Whalen, who is also captain of the Chester Fire Dept., said it was more of a reference.

“In a small town like this, coordination overlaps,” said board chair Arne Jonynas.

“Is there nothing to be learned by a tabletop exercise?” asked Cote. “I’ve been in all kinds of emergencies with documents like this and something always fails. Work the document.”

A tabletop exercise is where emergency management personnel gather to discuss simulated emergency scenarios. It is used to assess plans and procedures.

Board member Lee Gustafson asked if the town’s department heads walk through scenarios when they update the document each year.

Hance said that there wasn’t time. Usually the updates are discussed around a table, but this time it was just feedback.

Pisha noted that the department heads have 20 to  25 years of experience with all sorts of emergencies and they all just do what they need to do.

Cote said that if those department heads were near retirement, working the plan would be good for training replacements.

Referring to the plan, Chester resident Frank Bidwell questioned the lack of overnight shelters in case of such an emergency.

“None of the buildings are Red Cross certified,” said Hance. Bidwell then asked how the town could have emergency warming centers — Town Hall, the American Legion and Green Mountain Union High — yet no generators to power them should the electricity go out.

Cote asked if there was a formalized emergency plan for the town.

Hance said there is one, and added, “Do we practice it? No.”

Jonynas suggested reviewing this in the future with the heads of the departments that handle emergency services.

Revisiting the emergency services building

Noting that the town garage was built some 50 years ago and is at or beyond its useful life, Pisha said that the time had come to revisit the conversation about a new home for the Chester Fire Department and the Chester Ambulance Service.

Pisha told the board he thought it should start from scratch and look at everything and that he was planning a presentation for the May 17 board meeting to propose a direction.

Board member Heather Chase reminded the board that Mike Leonard had appeared at the previous meeting to ask the board to get an opinion from the town’s outside auditor about how much debt the town could comfortably take on. Leonard had said this would give the town a sense of what it could budget for in the design of a fire station. Pisha and Hance said the auditors would be in town in the next week.

An earlier design, which Whalen called a “Taj Mahal” costing $7 million to $8 million with a projected life of 50 to 100 years, was rejected by voters twice. Whalen said he was not in favor of going back to look at the old design, but to get a basic concept like the fire station built in Castleton.

In other business

Pisha announced that the town had engaged an architect to come up with preliminary designs for wayfinding signs as part of the Village Center master planning effort. The designs will be looked at and finalists will be presented to the community for a vote.  Pisha said this was a long-sought-after step and represents the transition from discussion to action.

Board member Lee Gustafson, owner of a company that installs solar panels, questions the electricity generation by the town’s solar farm.

Gustafson asked Pisha about the responsibility for keeping the solar panels at the Jeffrey Well site clean and free of snow.

“I put a call in (to Green Lantern the solar farm’s developer),” said Pisha, “but didn’t get a call in return, I’ll call again.”

Gustafson, who owns a company that installs alternative energy equipment like solar panels, said he thought the electricity production numbers looked odd and wondered what was being done to keep dust off the panels. He added that March should be the best month for electricity production.

“I’ll make another call,” said Pisha.

During public comment, Bidwell pointed out that the property tax exemption for the Rod & Gun Club, Masonic Temple, Green Mountain Softball League field and Gassetts Grange plus the cost of out-of-pocket health-care expenses reimbursed to town employees total $770,362 over five years. Bidwell called on the board to budget for everyone in Chester not just a few.

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  1. Mj Miles says:

    Dan is right. Realistically, you should also perform a full scale community exercise using any concern on your HVA. I just spent a week at FEMA training in Alabama for MCI and disaster drills and after reading it on paper for years nothing compares to operating the real thing. Really gives you insight.