Emergency management funding -- then and now
Editor's note: This is the third in a series of stories dealing with emergency preparedness in the 10-mile evacuation zone around Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
BRATTLEBORO -- Emergency management directors in the 10mile emergency preparedness zone around Vermont Yankee agree the funding process is adequate, even though all three states have different methods of receiving money from Entergy, which owns and operates the nuclear power plant in Vernon.
Up until 2005, the towns in the EPZ in Vermont went directly to the plant operator and requested money to fund their radiological emergency response plans.
"We didn't like the way the system was," said Lewis Sumner, Halifax's EMD. "We didn't always get what we asked for."
"The process was very haphazard," said Herb Meyer, Guilford's EMD. "In a way it was easier, but it was in no way fair."
After a review of the funding process revealed the flaws in the funding system, the Legislature amended statutes to standardize it. Now each town uses the same form - which includes items requested, funds necessary to purchase them, and a justification for why they are needed - which is forwarded to Vermont Emergency Management and the Department of Public Safety for review. Then the requests are sent to Vermont Yankee for "negotiation" before being finalized and sent to the Legislature for approval and the governor for his signature.
Barbara Sondag, Brattleboro's town manager and emergency management director, said there are "a lot of players" in the funding process, but it works better than it used to.
"Before it used to be quite adversarial, even between EPZ towns," she said. "But now it's more streamlined. As long as we can justify the use and the need, no one gets upset."
Sondag said the current process puts everyone on the same playing field.
Getting money for Vernon's emergency response plan has been easier for the town than others, said EMD Annette Roydon.
"We've always gotten what we need," she said. "But you have to remember it's also Vernon. We're the host community. It makes a difference."
Recently, outside of the formal budgeting process, Yankee agreed to outfit a new emergency operations center for Vernon, said Roydon. The old EOC used to be in the basement of the fire department, a room FEMA representatives jokingly used to say they were afraid to enter, she said.
The new EOC is now just a few doors down from the Yankee main gate on Gov. Hunt Road.
The process that was introduced in 2006 wasn't easy at first, said Lisa Hecht, who was Marlboro's EMD until about a year ago.
"Now everything is totally transparent," said Hecht.
Because everybody now has to submit the same structured request, each of the towns in the EPZ knows what everyone is asking for, said Meyer from Guilford.
This also helps, he said, because an EMD may not know what to ask for until he or she sees it being requested by another town. Such was the case with portable signs.
"Our fire department suggested I ask for them," said Meyer. "Now everyone has them."
Last fiscal year all the EOCs got new radios, said Meyer.
"That was partially because my radio operators complained they wanted headsets," he said. "They couldn't put them on the radios we had."
Towns now receive baseline funding each year, approximately $35,000, which includes training costs, salaries and stipends.
Anything over and above that amount requires a formal request.
The stipend for training is essential, said Meyer, because it allows him to buy food for those who attend training.
"If you feed them, they will come," he said.
Meyer said he is not asking for much over the normal amount distributed every year.
"Normal equipment maintenance and training is all we should need," he said.
Through the funding process, he has been able to increase his staffing to include a special needs coordinator and a Rapid Emergency Notification Telephone System coordinator.
Mike McKenney, Yankee's emergency preparedness manager, said the funding process is "give and take."
"We go through and discuss what the requests are, what the actual items are and whether they are for all hazards or specific to the RERP," he said.
For example, a generator for an emergency operations center can be used for any emergency, so a determination must be made as to what percentage Entergy is responsible for.
Glenn Herrin, who has been Marlboro's EMD for about a year, said the town is asking for five pagers for the Marlboro Fire Company, which the town will need to match 50 percent because they won't be used solely for a Yankee emergency.
He also requested a laptop for his use as EMD, at 100 percent, but said it was a low priority and he's not totally confident he will get those funds.
"The only trick, which is true will all government funding I've been involved in, is you have to forecast the requirements well in advance," said Herrin.
Hecht, Marlboro's former EMD, said big purchases that came via the funding in the past included a generator and an emergency trailer, large enough for a mobile EOC and traffic control equipment.
In addition, the fund has paid for electronic road signs, educational materials, mailings to identify the town's special-needs population and safety vests.
Sumner said he is asking for about $9,000 over and above the regular payment, for laptops and other items.
"That and doing some things to update the EOC," he said.
Sumner, who is also a member of the Halifax Selectboard, shares the duties of EMD with Justin Berry.
In New Hampshire, Ruth Van-Houten, EMD for Chesterfield, said she gets a budget from the state and is reimbursed quarterly for any expenses within that budget.
It covers 25 percent of the heat and electricity used in the town office, two telephone lines and Internet access, she said. It also covers regular equipment operability checks, distribution of information, maps, supporting documentation and facility maintenance.
As with other towns, Chesterfield often asks for items over and above those normal things included in the budget, such as last year, when it asked for, and received, a radio for the school.
Jim Van Dongen, public information officer for the New Hampshire Department of Safety, Bureau of Emergency Management, said the Granite State has "a gentleman's agreement" with the operators of Seabrook nuclear power plant, on the coast, and Yankee.
"We really have no law that tells us how to proceed," he said. "Every year we ask the towns to tell us what they're projecting for equipment and other expenses. We send that to the utilities and they either agree or disagree. Usually they agree. The amount normally doesn't change from year to year."
Because the plants are required to have emergency plans, there are costs associated with that, said Van Dongen.
"It's in the plants' best interests as well as the state's to have a single plan and to cooperate on that," he said.
Peter Judge, the public information officer for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said the Bay State's funding process is a little simpler than Vermont's.
"It's merely a matter of Entergy and the towns coming up with a number," he said.
Judge said MEMA works with the operators of Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire and Pilgrim nuclear power station in Plymouth, Mass., as well as Yankee.
The utilities meet with MEMA, which serves as a community agent, said Judge.
"All the communities get the same amount, which hasn't changed significantly," he said. Any request for additional funds needed is presented to the state, which negotiates with the utilities, said Judge.
The evacuation plan also calls for the state to use many of its own assets in the event of an emergency, such as traffic control devices.
"In many cases the towns don't need the materials permanently," said Judge.
James Erviti, the EMD for Warwick, Mass., said in the early days, Massachusetts towns used to ask Yankee for money and it just wrote a check and gave it to them.
"It was hit or miss," he said.
Now the state gets the money and each town gets a base amount of $7,500, he said.
"I can ask for pretty much anything I think I need, but whether or not I get it ... I doubt it," said Erviti.
Leyden, Mass., Police Chief Daniel Galvis, who also serves as the town's EMD, said the funding process is very efficient.
"And you can ask for additional funding," he said. "We needed to rewire the emergency operations center and they gave us the funding we needed. I've never had a problem getting the money we need."
One thing that is common among the three states, said Hecht, is that EMDs need to be strong advocates to get the funding their towns need.
"You can always use more money and be better prepared," she said.
In Friday's Reformer, officials from towns in the EPZ comment on whether they believe the evacuation plan is adequate.
Bob Audette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 802254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter@audette.reformer.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.