Town Hall Meeting Focused on Communication

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SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ - Police Chief Brian Mahoney lead the Public Discussion part of the Town Hall Meeting that was held Monday at 7 pm, December 17, in the Scotch Plains Township Council Chambers.

There were re-caps of Super Storm Sandy presented by the Township Manager Henry Underhill, Fire Chief Jon Ellis, Public Works Director Kevin Ward, and Rescue Squad Captain Dan Sullivan.

Mr. Underhill’s written After Action Report stated in its conclusion that “the most frequent comment received… was about the lack of communication.” The Township agrees. No preparations were made for the complete loss of power, and going forward there are plans for a reverse 9-1-1 system to be put in place.

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During Chief Mahoney’s report as OEM coordinator, he said “from the standpoint of emergency management, I would tell you that I think we fell short of what the public should expect from us… Our responses and coordination was fragmented and at times disconnected.”  Chief Mahoney went on to speak about the importance of an Operations Center.  “One of the most important things we learned was about communication. It needs to be concise and consistent. It needs to come from one source.”

The issues with communication were not unique to Scotch Plains. The Union County Emergency Management acknowledged the same issues. “We all need to communicate a little bit better”. 

In addition to improvements in communication, the township is looking at some improvements to the municipal infrastructure: the addition of some generators and some wireless technology. There is a plan to establish a Community Emergency Response Team, a group of volunteers that assist the OEM Coordinator during an incident.

Two representatives of PSE&G, Eileen Leahey and Jack Bridges, gave a PowerPoint presentation. Highlights of the presentation include reports on the impact the storm had to the distribution and transmission systems, and switching stations.

Mr. Bridges said “as we move forward, we need to strengthen our infrastructure.” PSE&G will evaluate different options to protect the substations. The tree-trimming program will be evaluated, and attempt to be more aggressive with the trees that are near power lines. They will analyze the costs and effectiveness of burying lines underground. PSE&G needs to evaluate the two-way communications to identify the service outages.

After the formal presentation, the floor was opened to questions and comments from residents.  The main questions surrounded the amount of time it took for PSE&G to respond to tree removal and downed lines.  PSE&G representative pointed out that their protocol  was to work on lines that would put the most houses back online, leaving smaller streets and cul-de-sacs for last.

Residents also raised questions about PSE&G’s communication during and after the storm, when some residents had to keep calling to inform the company that they were still out of power, and their communication since.

The Town also came under attack for the slowness of their response and for not addressing phone calls and letters from residents since the storm.  Chief Mahoney emphasized that everyone had done the best that they could under the circumstances and assured residents that individual issues would be addressed and future changes would ensure such a set of circumstances would not happen again.

Not all of the public comments were negative.  Some residents thanked the Town for the removal of trees with minimal damage and for quick collection of debris.  For other residents still waiting for debris removal, Kevin Ward of the DPW confirmed that final collection should be completed by the end of the week.

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