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How Lansdale's Emergency Operations Team Got the Job Done

Each and every department under Lansdale Borough was fully staffed and had what they needed to respond to issues during Hurricane Sandy

Lansdale Fire Marshal sat down at the conference table inside Lansdale Borough Manager Timi Kirchner's office on Wednesday morning, and pulled out a stack of event logs from a folder.

On one side of each piece of paper were rows filled in with various times, addresses and descriptions of incidents that occurred from the onset of Hurricane Sandy Monday afternoon — 87 incidents in all.

Aside from calls coming into borough hall directly, numerous calls were from the county 911 system and Lansdale Police dispatch.

Those 87 calls do no include the 17 pages of logged fire calls that Fairmount Fire Company responded to in the 14-hour period that Lansdale's Emergency Operations Center was in operation during the storm, from 4:30 p.m. Monday to 6:30 a.m. Tuesday.

According to Daveler, those calls were rapid, and a look at the event log showed it: 4:30 p.m., 4:33 p.m., 4:55 p.m., 5:05 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 5:35 p.m., 6:30 p.m., 6:36 p.m. and so on.

"It didn't slow down until about midnight," Daveler said.

Throughout the duration of Hurricane Sandy, Lansdale Borough staff were answering calls, responding to calls, courageously driving around in the storm, moving trees, clearing roadways of debris, inspecting damaged houses and aiding citizens.

Most importantly, they were calming fears.

"We had quite a few call in asking about shelters. What we recommended was shelter in place," Kirchner said. "We were ready. We were proactive."

The plan to protect Lansdale began the Friday prior with a meeting with the borough's management team: Kirchner, Daveler, Director of Community Development and Code Enforcement Director John Ernst, Utilities Director Jake Ziegler, Parks and Recreation Director Carl Saldutti, Wastewater Treatment Plant Supervisor Dan Shinskie, Public Works Supervisor Rick DeLong, Finance Director Brian Shapiro, Lansdale Police Chief Robert McDyre, Lansdale Police Sergeant Alex Kromdyk, Fairmount Fire Chief Joe Stockert, and Lansdale Library Director Tom Meyer.

Planning included everything from how to manage personnel and the safety of employees to payment of electric bills and payroll.

By 7:30 p.m. Sunday, the declaration of emergency was signed by council President Matt West, Kirchner and Daveler. Of all things the declaration does, it lifts bidding requirements so that if major equipment is needed for the storm, the borough can go out and purchase it.

Employees were called in to prepare for the storm on Sunday evening; most slept and rested on cots set up at the Emergency Operations Center at Fairmount Fire Company as the storm came in and continued on through the night.

"Jay knows how to watch and how to track these storms. He has a lot of experience and reference points," Kirchner said. "He let me know when people should come on board."

The key thing, Kirchner said, was to bring staff in ahead of storm, so they were not risking their lives.

"We were also sensitive to the way dispatch got hit with calls, most of which were people who were afraid," Kirchner said. "We made the decision to keep lines active here at borough hall to respond. Most calls were people who were scared. We had people from other areas (outside Lansdale) call in."

Ernst said that had borough hall closed, all calls would forward to Lansdale Police by default.

"By having someone here," Ernst said, "we could alleviate the police with receiving calls. We didn't want them responding to typical resident questions, when instead they could be out helping the public."

Kirchner was very impressed with the response of everyone from every department.

"If a tree went down on a building, codes was there to determine the viability of that building during the storm," she said.

There were more than a dozen instances where codes department inspectors had to make evaluations during the storm.

"We physically went into the homes and inspected them. We even went into the houses that the damaged houses were attached to," Ernst said.

When a call came in, the respective management team member would make a list and hand it over to Daveler. He then assessed and prioritized the incident. From there, he communicated to the electric department, public works, police or the codes department.

"He assessed who would be best to respond initially and evenutally prioritzed the calls," Kirchner said. "We were hit and hit hard for several hours — and everyone was calm and cooperative."

The usual roles of staff, she said, went out the window.

"If an officer saw a branch down, they would do their best to get it off the road and report it back to the operations center," she said. "All I heard in that radio room during the storm was 'Got it,' 'Got it,' 'Got it,' 'We're here,' 'We'll get there.' When you hear that, you know our ability to communicate works when the worst is happening."

Kirchner said when those who were out assessing the damage would find an issue, they would stay out there until someone could arrive to take care of the situation.

"Everybody has a role," Ernst said. "Everybody knew what puzzle piece they were to fit into the bigger picture."

Furthermore, every department was fully staffed during the storm, including the Lansdale Police Department and Fairmount Fire Company.

Those 17 calls the fire company responded to included automatic fire alarms, down wires, roofs blown off buildings, electrical fires and two structure fire calls at 33 Fairview Avenue and 113 E. Fifth Street that turned out to be nothing serious.

"Several times during the evening, I would look out and there were no trucks there. They were all out responding," said Ernst.

Trinity Lutheran Church also opened its doors as a shelter during the storm, and many from the borough sought shelter there.

"Trinity Lutheran did a spectacular job on taking care of evacuees," Kirchner said. "Trinity Lutheran went out of its way for this."

Daveler said the pre-preparation made by Kirchner and West, along with the full support of council and cooperation of all departments, insured the borough was able to respond to what it needed to in order to keep people safe and their fears calmed.

"Council has ensured the departments have what they need," she said. "The potential for danger was there for everyone who responded, but they were able to respond better and safer because council made sure they had what they need to get the job done. It made the ability to respond that much better and it improved cooperation and communication with all departments."

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