Three Towns, Three Approaches to Emergency Preparedness

            The COVID-19 pandemic presents complications to an aging core of community volunteers in Marion, Mattapoisett, and Rochester, and each of the Tri-Town communities has a distinct model of its own in mind to maximize success in times of crisis.

            Mattapoisett is affiliated with Middleborough-area Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), a national collaboration of medical and non-medical volunteers who are organized locally.

            “In Mattapoisett at least, the system we have in place is our MRC volunteers know they would be contacted if needed. If our existing resources were exhausted, we maintain a database,” explained Amanda Stone, the part-time Mattapoisett health nurse.

            Some of Mattapoisett’s MRC volunteers transitioned for ease of management to the statewide Mass Responds management system, but Mattapoisett is not a member per se. “In Mattapoisett, we decided that’s run by the state, but we would keep our MRC locally. The bottom line is that … we all work together ultimately,” said Stone.

            People join Mattapoisett’s MRC by completing application forms including whatever licenses and skills that they may have, including non-medical volunteers like computer skills that could be useful. “We certainly don’t turn anybody away,” said Stone.

            For an emergency dispensing site – those must be approved by the Massachusetts Department of Health – the town needs 69 volunteers available on a 24-hour shift. In reality, people wear many hats because there are so fewer than 69 available at one time.

            The MRC conducts drills and walk-throughs. Old Rochester Regional High School is the state-designated emergency dispensing site for Mattapoisett’s MRC so plans are already in place should an emergency occur. “You may need two EDS’s up and running, you just don’t know. It’s a live program in Mattapoisett,” said Stone. “We have a nice balance in Mattapoisett in medical versus non-medical volunteers and a variety of ages.

            “In many communities, CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and MRC work together if they need to. The goal for both organizations is to dispense emergency-response capabilities. We just have a very active MRC in Mattapoisett.”

            Stone is retiring from 16 years as the public health nurse at the end of February, but added eight months on a part-time basis. Emily Field is the new public-health nurse in Mattapoisett. “We’re sharing the workload,” said Stone.

            Stone saw the community through the H1N1 flu in 2009 and is now book-ending her tenure with COVID-19. “Every community is different,” she said, noting that Massachusetts is the only state in the union in which health is part of town government. “Massachusetts has 351 boards of health.”

            But even in the Tri-Town, there are distinct approaches meant to fit the profile of the individual community and address the needs of the residents. Marion is transitioning from what it considers an unsuccessful MRC affiliation to a CERT affiliation.

            “One of the primary roles for the MRC was the staffing and management of emergency shelters. The number of volunteers has declined in the last few years. There is a concern that the name ‘Medical Reserve Corp’ may be attributing to the reluctance of people to volunteer for the group if they don’t have some type of medical background,” stated Marion Chief of Police John B. Garcia in an email to The Wanderer. “A Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) has the potential to have a broader role in community emergency response. The main focus will still be on staffing and management of the shelters, but once the team is fully established, we may be able to expand the role and training to other areas such as search and rescue. We are hoping that we will have most of the current MRC volunteers transition to the CERT so that we don’t lose the expertise and experience they have accumulated over the years.”

            Dr. John Howard, who serves on the Marion Board of Health and is an active physician, traces the roots of CERT and MRC to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US. “Gradually, the funding has kind of drifted down so it’s pretty much voluntary now,” he said.

            The structure of each organization is regionally based now, so the Marion unit will be part of the Lakeville-area CERT chapter, and Mattapoisett’s team is affiliated with the Middleborough MRC.

            Howard remembers as many as 10 volunteers who participated in events like flu clinics, “but they never really got into an active training program or been mobilized. A lot of folks are older, retired, and older.”

            Some, said Howard, had some medical training. He wonders now if people with military experience or possibly Tabor Academy faculty could work with students. He would like to see students offered opportunities to connect to their community in a meaningful way. Through monthly training sessions, he suggests men and women alike can learn chain of command, the proper use of radios, and other aspects of emergency management.

            “CERT is clearly where we’re headed now and because of the relatively weak response to the MRC … people heard MRC and they heard ‘medical’ and they got nervous,” he said. “I’m not a nurse, I’m not an EMT … I probably can’t help out very much there. It’s a perception thing.”

            Garcia became a part-time police officer in 1983 at age 20. On January 3, 2021, he will hand over his title to Lieutenant Richard Nighelli and, along with it, the lead role in Marion’s emergency response. Before he does, he is looking to build some momentum for a CERT program.

            “We are hoping that the ‘rebranding’ will appeal to a wider range of people. It will be a challenge to draw in new volunteers. Reports indicate that volunteerism across the nation is down,” Garcia stated in the email.

            In an independent approach that neither asks for, nor genuflects to, the trend toward regionalization of assistance and services, Rochester Board of Selectmen Chairman Paul Ciaburri oversees a town-centered, town-supplied emergency response plan – for the town by the town. It’s as old-school as can be, but the results speak for themselves.

            “We’ve got a list of people, some young, some older, plus everybody on the Fire Department helps out. We’ve been very fortunate because our shelter is the Senior Center, which has worked out very well so far. We take it one storm at a time, we do the best we can. Sometimes we get a lot of volunteers, sometimes we get just enough,” said Ciaburri. “I’ve always looked at it as my first job is to take care of the people in Rochester. We’d take people from Marion and Mattapoisett if need be. The regional shelter stuff, it’s never worked very well.”

            Pragmatism rules in Rochester, where affiliation is counterproductive. Ciaburri said he didn’t get Rochester involved in CERT because of the many requirements, including potential deployment of volunteers to other locations.

            “We’ve done some shelter training when Mass Emergency Management has some classes so they have some ideas and rules. I did not want to put them in some position where they were going to be taken to the Plymouth shelter or the Mattapoisett shelter. I go to some of those meetings … but we’re not affiliated,” he said.

            Ciaburri said that on one occasion, Wareham closed its shelter and Rochester kept the person to the end of the week, then told its neighbor it’s their responsibility. “At that point, you have to put them in a hotel or motel … it can be a budget buster. If we didn’t have the people we have, it would be very expensive,” he said.

            Between comfortable beds against the height of cots in a school building or the simplest things like a nice meal or snack and a place to charge a cell phone when the power is out at home, Ciaburri says the Senior Center on Dexter Lane has been an excellent resource for the town. And it avoids the expenses that come with police detail and janitorial and cafeteria staff.

            “The seniors are very comfortable there. The last time we had a shelter, everything went well,” he said. Rochester served 290 meals over five days. “The one lucky thing we have here is people genuinely don’t like to leave their house unless it’s really bad, and that’s kind of worked in our favor.”

            Tree damage, downed wires, those things will send residents to the Senior Center, but it’s rare they need to stay over.

            At 67, Ciaburri figures it’s time the town started figuring out how to replace or evolve the role, which for him has been a volunteer position since he began as Rochester’s emergency manager in 1980. “I’ve enjoyed doing it. I always got the support from the Police, Fire, Board of Selectmen, office staff. I’ll be here a few more years yet,” he said.

By Mick Colageo

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