Improved communications with residents was established following Hurricane Irene and last October's snowstorm that has become part of Bernards Township's standard operating procedure.
Steps taken in that direction are a direct result of the two severe weather incidents in 2011 that each time left many without power for more than a week, wondering what would happen next.
Since the storms, social media has become an important part of the township's efforts to improve communications. After the events last Aug. 28 and Oct. 29, Bernards Township has established a Facebook page and a Twitter account, as well as posting additional information on the already-existing Bernards Township website.
"There's nothing we can do about Mother Nature," Lt. Mike Shimsky, coordinator of the Bernards Township Office of Emergecy Management, said shortly before the anniversary of Hurricane Irene.
But in afterwards examining the township's response to the emergency, Shimsky said, "Stumbling blocks to recognize include communications and preparedness."
Just this month, the Bernards Township Office of Emergency Management announced its participation in the Nixle community notification system. Residents and interested parties can sign up to receive Nixle alerts at www.nixle.com. Participants can choose a user name and password as well as listing devices on which they would like to receive message alerts, according to Police Lt. Mike Shimsky, coordinator of the Bernards Township Office of Emergency Mangement.
The township, with some success, had been urging Jersey Central Power & Light to pass along more information about where power outages were taking place, and better estimates of when power might be restored, said Shimsky, and officials speaking following last year's storms in August and October. The township also relied on reverse 9-1-1 calls during power outages to reach residents.
If it is needed, the township has plans to put into action an emergency operations center from which all communications would originate, Shimsky said.
That center would be based from the township police headquarters at 1 Collyer Lane, but Shimsky added the the township also has a mobile command center ready to go that can function as a shelter, has generators and is equipped with radios.
That mobile command center is not needed only for widespread emergencies or disasters, Shimsky said. He said it was needed and functioned when a special needs boy drowned in a detention basin at a township condo development.
According to Shimsky, Nixle is a community information service dedicated to helping citizens “stay connected to the information that matters most.” Citizens stay connected to the township with information relevant to them during periods of emergency, heightened alert or special events. Information is immediately available over cell phonex by text message, email and over the web.
Residents' accounts can be customized to receive the information that matters most to that person based on geographic location, according to township information on Nixle.
Shimsky said the township's emergency responders want to continue working on communications and community outreach "to the best of our ability."
When the OEM team is being amassed following an emergency, Bernards Township Health Department director Lucy Forgione, whose office also serves Bernardsville and Peapack-Gladstone, as well as communities in Morris County.
Forgione said that a major role of her office in a power outage is to make sure that restaurants and food stores that may have been closed during a power outage safely discard food that may have been without refrigeration for too long. Working with the police force and making sure there is adequate potable water are other responsibilities, she said.
Forgione said that her office also encourages residents to prepare for emergencies, whether by stocking up on water supplies, batteries or a transistor radio, or having a plan for family members to follow.
"We never thought a lot of things would happen," Forgione observed of the past decade's many unanticipated emergencies, including the World Trade Center attack in September 2001.
Shimsky said the township received an increase in permits to install generators following the storms. "You don't recognize how much you take it [electricity] for granted until you don't have power in the house," he observed.
During emergencies with widespread implications, "Government can only do so miuch," Forgione said.
Somerset Hills YMCA a source of assistance
Government agencies haven't been the only source of help that the township police have been able to rely upon in times of trouble. Shimsky noted tht the Somerset Hill YMCA served during the storm as a place where people from throughout the Somerset could recharge batteries, shower and as relax during the storms' aftermaths.
The township's cost to hire people for dealing with Hurricane Irene was approximately $56,000 in contractors and overtime, said Terri Johnson, the township's chief financial officer.
Shimsky, who applied for federal emergency aid, said the recouped $41,891.15, the allowable 75 percent of the cost from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Shimsky said estimates for the October snowstorm costs are not finalized, but should be similar to those of Irene.