Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of stories dealing with emergency preparedness in the 10-mile evacuation zone around Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
BRATTLEBORO -- Town officials who plan for an emergency at Vermont Yankee are confident that they can respond adequately and effectively to any emergency at the nuclear power plant.
But a number of emergency management directors in the 10-mile preparedness zone told the Reformer that as with any disaster, you don't really know how well a plan is going to work until it's time to put it in motion.
"No plan is perfect," said Glenn Herrin, who has been Marlboro's emergency management director for about a year. "Having a written plan is nice, but the coordination involved among all the parties is important."
Herrin said the best way to describe the difference between a plan and planning was stated by Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957.
"Plans are worthless, but planning is everything," said Eisenhower. "The very definition of ‘emergency' is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning."
The radiological emergency plan is the starting point and guide for responding to an emergency and covers all the contingencies EMDs can come up with, said Herrin. And, as the response to Tropical Storm Irene proved, Marlboro has a pretty good plan in place.
"We were prepared for Irene because of the training we received," said Lisa Hecht, who was Marlboro's EMD up until about a year ago. "You need to be prepared. It doesn't matter what the emergency might be, the response will be the same."
Vermont Emergency Management is the linchpin in the response effort to any emergency, said Herrin.
"VEM leads the towns, other agencies, Vermont Yankee, hospitals, schools, and many other organizations in continuously reviewing, rehearsing, and revising the plan," said Herrin. "What we have is a flexible, living plan where the planners coordinate regularly to keep the plan and the players up to date. The plan is good, but it's the ongoing process of planning that ensures that if anything does happen, we start from the same sheet of music and then keep working together as events unfold."
Lewis Sumner, Halifax's EMD, said the training his EOC staffers received served his town well when Irene passed through the area.
"The towns in the EPZ are way ahead of the rest of the state," he said.
Like other EMDs, James Erviti, of Warwick, Mass., said he was very satisfied with the level of training delivered to the volunteers who train to implement the emergency plan.
"The great thing about it is it stands us in good stead for all other emergency situations, such as the ice storm we experienced a few years back," he said. "Because of the training we have received we were able to not run around like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off. We knew what we needed to do in order to make everything work."
Leyden, Mass., Police Chief Daniel Galvis, who is also the town's EMD, said he is very comfortable with the plan in place to react to an emergency at Yankee, and his confidence in the plan has been reinforced by past events.
"During the October 2011 snowstorm we had power back on in a matter of hours," said Galvis. "When something happens, we show up, we activate and we coordinate. We know what has to be done and we get it done."
"We're better equipped because of the training we've received," said Brattleboro Town Manager Barbara Sondag, who is also the town's EMD.
Steve Barrett, the director of the Brattleboro's Department of Public Works, said the drills related to the EPZ also force staffers to think outside the box.
"It's about being able to ask the right questions to make good decisions," he said.
The drills help emergency responders expand their knowledge base as well, said Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi.
"We're learning all the time," he said.
Brattleboro is not just worried about emergencies at Yankee, flooding along the Whetstone Brook, hurricanes or ice storms, said Sondag. With a major rail line running through town, there are other scenarios to prepare for, others that might be more immediate than an accident at Yankee, she said.
"What if we had to evacuate the whole town because of a train derailment?"
What EMDs have to keep in mind at all times is at what point do they order an evacuation, said Sondag.
"That's one of the things you are practicing," she said.
If they have to order an evacuation, the Vermont State Police and other law enforcement agencies will be called upon to ensure it's orderly.
"We have tabletops and different drills and try to make them as real as possible," said Captain Ray Keefe, D-Troop Commander of the Vermont State Police. D-Troop encompasses one-quarter of the state and includes the barracks in Brattleboro, Rockingham and Royalton.
Despite how well he may feel the trainings are, said Keefe, "One would have to expect people will react differently during the real deal. If you're a parent who is told not to go to a school but your child calls you on a cell phone and tells you they are waiting in front of the school, we know where you are going to go."
It's up to law enforcement agencies to react appropriately in those situations and understand what a parent might be experiencing, he said. Just as Brattleboro's Steve Barrett noted, it's important for all officers to think outside of the box in these situations.
"In terms of overall preparation, we are there," said Keefe. "But it's going to be tough to assess how things are really going to go, when realities come into play."
Recently, the VSP participated in a drill that included a hostile action on Vermont Yankee and following the "neutralization" of the threat, a loss of cooling at the plant. The drills are not only a chance to check the equipment that would come into use during an emergency, but also a chance to enhance communication between the different agencies.
And because of the training, his troopers were also prepared for the devastation wreaked by Irene.
"Our people rose to the occasion," said Keefe.
In Saturday's Reformer, how will local schools deal with getting children out of harm's way?
Bob Audette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.