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SARATOGA SPRINGS — Workplace violence and school shootings. Catastrophic weather events and rail accidents exposing residential neighborhoods to hazardous materials.
“Those to me are the hazards we face on any given day,” explained John Catone. The assistant city police chief recently completed a near-two-year project of compiling potential disaster concerns in Saratoga Springs and how to best address them. The Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan – comprised of approximately 500 pages of documents and annexes – was unanimously approved by the council this month. It is the first new comprehensive plan the city has had in nearly a decade.
Risk preparedness, response, and recovery are three aspects of the plan. In terms of concerns, the potential of a catastrophic weather event, and terrorism register on the city agenda. “You’re also taking into account school shootings and workplace violence, because that’s really what’s going on today,” Catone said. The potential for public exposure to hazardous materials weighs heavily, as well.
“What is of interest around here is the rail. In terms of a potential incident, that is a reality for us because we have a lot of things shipped along the rail line that runs along a large section of the city,” Catone said. The Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Thruway Authority are preparing a draft Environmental Impact Statement regarding a pipeline project which would span nearly 170 miles from Albany to New Jersey and carry Bakken crude oil through Saratoga Springs and in close proximity to local homes, Saratoga Hospital, Skidmore College and Saratoga Springs High School.
“Originally there was some discussion about whether we could use what we had (written prior to 2008) and make some adjustments. I started reading through it and saw there was no way. Times have changed. So many adjustments have been made to emergency management that the only way was to do a total re-write of the plan; take the old one and do an entirely new one based on all the things that have occurred since Hurricane Katrina,” Catone said.
The combination of a short-staffed department – decimated from 68 to 69 members down to 54 because of layoffs and retirements – and an ever-changing City Council which didn’t place a high priority on emergency management, contributed to the time-lag, Catone said. The City Charter stipulates the plan should be reviewed every three years. Catone is pushing to change that to an annual review, as well as getting all of the city departments involved.
“I made it clear to the council that they’ve got to change the City Charter, because things change so much in emergency management. This should be a fluid document. If you wait three years and it becomes a fourth and a fifth year, then whoever comes after me is going to have to do a complete re-write,” Catone said.
“The way it’s written, it also all falls under the Commissioner of Public Safety, but that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. The Commissioner of Public Safety does not make financial policy – that’s Finance; does not make purchasing policy – that’s Accounts; does not deal with other things that belongs to the mayor’s office, or manage the resources and personnel of DPW. So, I came back to everybody and said: this is the draft and you all have to be involved.”
On any given day, the city population of 29,000 can swell exponentially given visitors to large venues such as the racecourse, SPAC, and special events staged throughout the year, as well as the flow of area residents from rapidly expanding adjoining communities.
“We are very unique. Without all the planning and training we do, there’s no way that we could accommodate all those events (and guard against) major incidents. If the first day you’re going to prepare for this is the day that the event happens - forget it. The event will have already run you over,” said Catone who is chairman of the Emergency Management Team and is currently coordinating a Disaster and Recovery Team to include members of all departments.
Police training has amped up in recent years to include active shooter drills, large-scale school evacuations, and in preparation of potential scenarios at places like Saratoga Hospital and Skidmore College.
“I can tell you from experience: never say never,” said city DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco. “When I was county supervisor, I can’t tell you the chaos that happened after the tornado in Mechanicville because of the radio system; nobody could talk to anyone down there and I don’t think there was a comprehensive plan in place like this one. Through situations like that, we learn and we make changes.”
Recent changes include integration with the county radio system to allow for better communication in the case of a major emergency, developing a business continuity plan to specify how each department expects to function in the case of a major disaster, and designating a shelter or other place where people can bring their pets – the latter being a lesson learned after people lost their lives during Hurricane Katrina because they refused to evacuate their homes and leave their pets behind.
“You also need to have an emergency operation center,” Catone said. “It can’t be on the hood of a car. When we had the major ice storm in 2006, the council met in the stairwell down by the vending machine because there was nothing else. You can’t operate that way.”
In February 2006, a winter storm plunged the city into an icy darkness that lasted in some wards for several days. Since that time, an emergency generator has been installed at City Hall, and Catone has specified the Saratoga Music Hall, on the upper floor of City Hall, would serve as an operations center.
“The major players all work in this building. We’ll be able to do things with the generator running and if we gather in the Music Hall it will give us, for now, a place to break out into work groups and bring everybody together for meetings,” he said. At least one alternate site still needs to be designated, as the city has plans to convert the hall into a courtroom.
“The public has an expectation given all the events of the past 10 or 15 years that you know how to do this, and that you’re prepared,” Catone said. “So, you better know how to do this.”