RARITAN, TWP, NJ - Raritan Township Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Chris Phelan, along with first responders Tony Veneziale and Dennis Concannon spoke March 17 to the Raritan Township Committee to provide a special update on recent activities and planning exercises conducted in response to the coronavirus pandemic affecting the entire country.
Two hours prior to the township committee meeting, Raritan’s OEM personnel and township administrator Don Hutchins participated in a conference call with New Jersey State Health Commissioner Judith M. Persichilli and officials from various county and municipal-level OEM divisions.
“In cooperation with the Hunterdon County OEM and county health department, as all municipal-level OEMs have, over the last two-and-a-half week window, I have participated in numerous briefings and conference calls on situations that are developing on the ground,” Phelan said. “Kudos to all our emergency services, including the Raritan Township Fire Company, the Raritan Township Police Department, the Flemington-Raritan First Aid & Rescue Squad and all who serve our township. These are great groups of individuals who are prepared every day to serve our residents.”
He spoke about constant contact and open lines of communication maintained with Hunterdon County OEM major entities and critical institutions in the greater Raritan Township vicinity, including Hunterdon Medical Center, local school districts and their OEM counterparts in Flemington Borough and neighboring Readington Township.
“Area schools began closings last Friday, and we continue to work with Kari McGann, superintendent of schools for Flemington-Raritan Schools and Dr. Jeffrey Moore, superintendent of the Hunterdon Central Regional High School district,” Phelan said.
The lifeblood of OEM operations at the township level is awareness and enacting its rapid-response cycle of preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation and prevention.
With the evolution of COVID-19 pandemic response and proactive measures to close certain functions and inform the public, the Raritan Township OEM is prepared to activate components of the township emergency operation plan, which emergency responders are continuously ready to implement.
“There are some mitigating circumstances related to the size, scale and information being shared by the media,” Phelan said. "In the next several weeks, we will continue to share accurate information out to the public and I want to encourage residents and businesses to use our tools on the Raritan Township OEM Facebook page and social media, and we continue updating items on the township website. We obviously have no crystal ball for the duration of this incident, but we are prepared to continue making sure we have a safe working environment with township offices and facilities.”
Inside the municipal complex is the Raritan Township Emergency Operations Center where Phelan conducts research, communications and protocol with the team. The center features resources from multi-screens and databases available on desktops and handheld radio units.
“Depending on incidents and what could potentially take place, OEM sometimes goes beyond this organized setup and meets with officials in a conference room,” Phelan said. “Like most townships the State of New Jersey and Hunterdon County, we are required to have Emergency Operations Plans, and each one of the plans has an annex that addresses different issues. These are operations and deployment we are prepared for at the Raritan Township-level, year-round, in terms of who is responsible for what, and when an incident happens, how do we mitigate and then recover.”
As of March 19, Phelan said, normal township police, fire and OEM protocols remain in place. The township's Emergency Operations Center has not been activated as of yet, but Phelan noted that Hunterdon County OEM is prepared to activate its Flemington command center.
The Raritan Township Local Emergency Planning Council held a special meeting on the morning of March 18, involving stakeholders from each of the emergency units of operation. In attendance were representatives from OEM, police, fire and township administration, as well as department heads from the fire marshal's office, construction division and department of public works.
An interest in procuring extra personal protective equipment, or PPE, for township divisions was sufficiently addressed at the meeting.
Phelan said township OEMs interfacing directly with members of Hunterdon County OEM, the police department, the rescue squad and the Raritan Township Fire Company have built on preparations over the last several weeks. Based on specific departmental needs and the various OEM training, equipment ranges from basic needs on the job to items on top of what police traditionally carry.
Phelan added that the rescue squad must have a different level of personal protective equipment because they "are experienced on the medical side and service is in direct treatment."
"We held a briefing and meeting with the emerging information to share and to consider supplies,” he said. “Much of what we're doing with emergency management at this stage of the game is facilitating information and being able to support whatever resources the agencies might need. There's a constant flow of communication between agencies.”
“I was able to put a request in to our county's Office of Emergency Management and we got the requests for gloves and surgical masks fulfilled to the agencies by Monday,” he added. “This worked good, and it's just another precautionary measure at this point. We plan to not have any personnel caught running short on anything.”
As of Thursday, Phelan said, the township OEM is activated for the preparedness and response phase of emergency management protocols.
The Raritan Township OEM is comprised of nine deputies with coordination to and from township fire and police, OEM personnel and the Flemington-Raritan First Aid & Rescue Squad. Raritan OEM is supplemented by the 10 trained volunteer members of CERT, the Community Emergency Response Team.
Not every Hunterdon municipality has CERT support, although Bethlehem Township, Clinton Township and neighboring Readington Township have local CERT members.
If the emergency operations center at the township building is activated, CERT volunteers will assist by fielding phone calls from any township residents or businesses. CERT will also be called upon, if needed, for assisting the police and fire divisions.
"CERT falls under the Office of Emergency Management, and they are diversified in what they can do,” Phelan said. “CERT volunteers are trained in certain areas of emergency/disaster response, but they are not to the same level of training as an EMT, firefighter or an officer. We remain diligent 24-7-365, but in light of COVID-19 response that continues evolving, other initiatives were put in place.”
“We are seeing an increased set of protocols for our police, fire, rescue squad and with our other facilities in Raritan Township as the hospital (Hunterdon Medical Center) has in place new protocols and ramped up operations in terms of more public information placed on their website,” he added.