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Supervisors question CCEMO about TCI fire

Aug 09, 2012 2:01 am
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="260"] Photo by Jeffrey Lependorf.[/caption]

The Columbia County Board of Supervisors welcomed Bill Black, the Director of Columbia County Emergency Management, and a team of experts at its meeting Wed., Aug. 8, to discuss the fire at the TCI plant in West Ghent last Wed. Aug. 1. A few supervisors questioned the communication response to the fire and potential chemical exposure, while others called for the county to spend $50,000 to upgrade to an automated phone calling reverse 911 system. WGXC's Lynn Sloneker recorded the presentation in two parts.

(Part two contains supervisors asking questions, and is perfect for airing in total.)

Bill Black started off the presentation with a timeline of how the incident occurred, which started with a call around 10:20 p.m. to local firefighters about a blaze at TCI. He included the detail about a 911 call around midnight that turned out to be a "home invasion" less than a mile from the scene. (Click here to hear that excerpt, 1:16) At one point, the Sheriff's Office thought they had a band of five armed suspects headed into the scene of the fire. At the same time firefighters were uncovering evidence of possible chemicals in the building, and they pulled back "erring on the side of caution" to protect the first responders. "There wasn't enough foam in the county to put that fire out," Black said, also describing several explosions throughout the night at the site, like none he has ever seen in 30 years on the job. Columbia County Sheriff David Harrison Jr. and Lieutenant Thomas Lanphear, Columbia County Fire Coordinator John Howe and state health department officials also spoke.

Talk turned to emergency communication and public outreach. CCEMO admitted they had no system in place to notify all county residents in this or any future emergency. It was noted that people living in Berkshire County in Massachusetts and Rensselear County in New York were notified by robocalling systems. Robin Andrews, Claverack Supervisor, said that though she could smell the fire overnight, she was not notified until 6 a.m. The CCEMO said they were already in the process of bringing a proposal to the Public Safety Committee to upgrade to some sort of emergency notification reverse 911 system. The cost to upgrade their current NY-Alert system (which the CCEMO did not have the password to until the day after the fire) or purchase some other automated phone calling reverse 911 system would be between $35,000 to $50,000 per year. While the public could not question the officials, some of the supervisors had statements or queries for Black and the Dept. of Health and other experts present. "This was the most incredible wake-up call for our communication systems," Hillsdale's Art Baer said. "We blew it," Claverack's Andrews said. "We need to own up to it." (Click here to hear that excerpted audio clip.) Elizabeth Young, from Taghkanic, wanted to know what farmers should do and why special care to notify agricultural interests was not taken. Supervisors said they will hear a proposal at a Public Service Committee meeting in two weeks to upgrade the communications system and vote on it in a special session a few days after that.