NEW CASTLE —
Is Lawrence County prepared to handle a weather-related or natural emergency?
The answer is a carefully considered “maybe,” according to two local fire chiefs.
“You think that you’re prepared (for emergencies),” said Shenango Township fire chief David Rishel. “But you don’t know exactly what will happen, how it will affect your buildings and equipment or ability to respond.”
If warned that a tornado will come next Wednesday and flatten New Castle, Rishel knows he can prepare by gathering resources and people to be ready to act.
“But if half of Lawrence County is destroyed, where do we go? If your plan includes using fire department resources and equipment but the fire station gets blown over and the equipment stored there is gone and the people you expect to use are not available, what do you do?”
“You can’t say if you’ll be able to deal with something until it happens and you see how badly you are affected.”
Public safety has long been a concern of Neshannock Township fire Chief John DiCola.
“Are our communities prepared? Some are. Some aren’t,” he said, adding, “If we’re adequately prepared, it doesn’t matter what the incident is.”
The county’s unique location, which has protected the area from severe weather episodes, has resulted in what may be a false sense of security, he said.
“Many say nothing ever happens here. That is a dangerous position to take,” DiCola said. “But I am confident that our (Lawrence County) public safety director will be able to muster necessary resources needed, and we will be able to adequately respond to any emergency.”
Both fire chiefs stressed the importance of local planning in anticipation of disaster.
A killer tornado that ripped through Mercer and Beaver counties in 1985, causing destruction and ripping down power and phone lines, prompted municipalities to develop response plans, Rishel said. If a major emergency hits, he said, communities want to be able to survive on their own for 24 hours.
The county can reach out to neighboring counties and to the state and federal government for assistance, “but that takes time and red tape,” DiCola said. “Every community must be prepared to step in immediately to bring aid.”
DiCola said Neshannock’s volunteer fire department began some time ago to amass generators, pumps, water and government-issued resources including Meals Ready to Eat that are kept in the township’s two fire stations and are immediately accessible.
He added that Brian Melcer, Lawrence County director of public safety, has the ability to coordinate primary needs to provide safety and emergency support to help people in immediate peril.
New Castle fire chief Tom Maciarello did not hesitate when asked if the area is prepared to respond to any emergency.
“Definitely,” he said. He added that , city and county emergency service providers plan to meet within the next two weeks.
“We want to see that we’re on the same page. We are,” Maciarello said.
New Castle, the county’s only paid full-time fire department, is trained to respond to hazards including weather emergencies and toxic spills in addition to fire and medical emergencies.
Through mutual aid agreements, he said, all local fire and police work together to protect their communities.
“We don’t get the severe weather and flooding, but we’re ready to respond to anything that is called for,” Maciarello said.
A STARTING POINT
Melcer said the county has an emergency plan as “a starting point” of what to do in the event of an emergency.
Emergency service providers have discussed possible responses to tornados floods and earthquakes, which are now an issue, Rishel said. Due to the construction of a series of dams, he noted, flooding has not been the concern it was in the 1930s through 1950s.
However, Rishel emphasized the importance of communication among responders.
“Without that, there’s not much you can do,” he said.
Training also is essential.
“We must know what we’re doing, what everyone else will be doing and that we’re all working together,” Rishel said.
Most of the local fire companies try to have two stations rather than concentrate all of their equipment in one, he said.
“We can’t say we’re prepared to handle everything, but we have taken steps.”
“We need resources, we need people but mostly we need someone making good management decisions from the top down,” DiCola said. “If we have good direction, I’m comfortable that the size of the incident and the number of communities affected can be managed.”
He added that in the event of an emergency, police and fire departments will count on cooperation of utility companies, Red Cross and public works departments of all municipalities.
“If the chips are down, people will help,” he said. “If there is an issue, they will work together.”
Rishel agreed, noting that the county Emergency Medical Service and nearly 27 fire departments and agencies worked well together during an April 7 grass fire that involved 106 acres in Shenango Township.
“We saw a lot of good people working flawlessly together,” he said.
Cooperation also is exemplified by the mutual aid pairings of the county.
“Each community sets up its own mutual aid program and four departments are called out on each structural fire,” Rishel said. “That way there will be enough people and equipment, and no one has to worry that no one will show up.”
Although he remains concerned, Rishel said he is confident that the county is ready to respond in an emergency.
“We need good communications, good quality people to help and we need trained people. If we don’t have these three things, we are fighting a losing battle.”