Borough Re-Envisions Emergency Response Operations

One year after Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc in Fair Lawn, the borough has moved to a new, and what it expects to be, more effective emergency response model

If Hurricane Irene swept through Fair Lawn today, the borough wouldn't employ the same emergency response model it used last year.

Instead, it would return to procedures used during 1999's Tropical Storm Floyd that were shelved for last August's federally declared disaster.

Current borough manager Tom Metzler, who has extensive emergency management experience and was actually working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Irene touched down, said that while he would not second guess the previous regime, things would operate differently under his watch.

"There would be a much greater emphasis on our emergency operations center and representation of all of the individuals that we needed around the table," said Metzler, who nonetheless praised the borough's 2011 hurricane response. "I wasn’t there, I’m not in a position to criticize. I just think a coordinated effort through an emergency operations center is the national standard, it's consistent with the national response plan and that’s what we should do."

For the approximately two weeks last year from the time the storm landed through the historic flooding and subsequent cleanup, emergency management coordinator Ira Marks said then-borough manager Timothy Stafford held meetings with all department heads on a near-daily basis, but did not open a 24-hour operations center.

In between meetings, Marks said department heads kept in constant touch with one another to coordinate immediate plans of action as necessary.

"I kept [Stafford] informed as much as possible, but for the most part I wasn’t here," he said. "I was in the street."

When Marks, his deputy or another OEM employee were out of the office, phone calls from concerned residents went to an answering machine. Messages were returned promptly and not left to pile up, Marks said, but he would have preferred using the 24-hour operations center model that Metzler instituted and employed during Tropical Storm Floyd.

Under the operations center model, non-emergency calls placed to the police or other departments are routed to a single 24-hour human-operated hotline for flood-related questions.

The approach benefits both the caller and the borough, Marks said.

For the caller, speaking to a real person offers confirmation and relief that their problems are being heard and handled in a timely fashion. For the borough, being able to respond to and compile a list of all overnight callers and their needs allows employees to prepare an itinerary in advance so morning crews can get started immediately on the day's tasks upon arriving at work.

"I believe a coordinated effort best serves the public and I think we can show routinely across the United States that where those basic fundamentals are applied, the disaster will run smoother," said Metzler, adding that the emergency management coordinator, not the manager, would be responsible for running the operations center in a future disaster.

Metzler said that from his discussions with department heads regarding last year's hurricane response, he learned it was never clearly defined whether the manager or the OEM coordinator was in charge.

From 1990 to 2005, during his time at the helm of the borough's emergency management department, Metzler said he ran the show during emergencies -- a protocol he has reinstated since taking over as manager.

"[Past managers] effectively said, 'The resources of the borough are at your disposal, please use them wisely,'" Metzler said of his time heading the OEM. "I, as the emergency management coordinator, briefed the manager every single day, but the borough manager was not the person that was in the EOC calling the shots."

Current emergency management coordinator Ira Marks declined to discuss whether any behind-the-scenes leadership conflicts between he and then-manager Stafford arose during last year's storm.

"It's old news and it's not going to help anything," he said. "I did what had to be done for the residents."

Beyond activation of an operations center and improved coordination between departments, Metzler is also hoping to clean up the disaster claims process going forward.

When the emergency management coordinator became a part-time position a few years back, responsibility for filing post-disaster insurance claims was transferred to the administration. The OEM coordinator continued to handle the supplemental FEMA claims, however, which resulted in some confusion.

“Looking back at Irene, one of the problems was that administration took care of insurance, Ira was taking care of the FEMA claims, but there was no coordination between the two," Metzler said. "I came back after the storm and that’s really what I did. I basically said, 'Let’s look at insurance, let’s look at FEMA and let’s merge the two together and clean this mess up,' which ."

Metzler said he'd soon be preparing a presentation for council on the future of emergency management in the borough.

"While I’m here there will certainly be a heightened coordination between the FEMA and the insurance, if there’s a future disaster," he said. "But I’m not going to be here forever…so I think we need to look beyond that."


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Mike Pena August 30, 2012 at 06:32 PM
I remeber Floyd well and Metzler was always a phone call away. He did a great job then and will continue to do a great job, he ensured that there was always someone manning the phones 24 hrs. Beyond that he will ensure that the right equipment will be sent out to tackle the job. This last time "Irene" the riretrucks did have the appropriate equipment to bail out the residents.
BellairBerdan August 30, 2012 at 07:18 PM
Sounds like an "emergency operations center" will be a fancy excuse for spending money. To have someone answer calls 24 hrs a day is fine. Great idea. You can do that with call forwarding. If you forward the calls to a manager it won't even cost any overtime since they're on salary. Everyone is available all the time with a cell phone or radio. A face to face meeting can be done with ichat if needed. Laying out a written protocol for who is in charge of what is a great idea. Obviously that should have been done a long long time ago. Exactly how much will this operations center cost? Considering we have these emergencies maybe once every 5-10 years historically how cost effective will outfitting an emergency operations center be? Could this become of those unnecessary expenditures that may be good for a place like NYC but not appropriate for a town like Fair Lawn, like Frank Sina says?
money August 30, 2012 at 07:43 PM
hes doing such a great job he and the council decided to give him a raise! when all other employees are cutting back hours, residents taxes are going up, our herioc manager decides now would be a great time to increase his already large salary. pohlman, your lucky you got a keyboard, it would be tough to talk with your head so far up the borough manager and republican council members butts.
Zak Koeske August 30, 2012 at 09:05 PM
@BellairBerdan - The borough already has an emergency operations center that was purchased years ago with federal grant money. During Tropical Storm Floyd, the EOC was manned 24 hours a day by an all volunteer force that included both trained residents and municipal employees who worked the night shift as volunteers. The borough's OEM currently has an all-volunteer Community Emergency Response Team trained to set up the EOC in the case of a disaster.
BellairBerdan August 30, 2012 at 11:21 PM
My point Zak is that it appears we are being groomed for another big expenditure, that in my opinion is unnecessary with today's technology. Will we spend tens of thousands of dollars to get a matching grant when nearly everything can be accomplished on a few $400 iphones?


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