Wilmington reflects on Vigilant Guard response


WILMINGTON — Select Board members spoke highly of emergency responders involved in the Vigilant Guard exercise around emergency preparedness.

"They did fabulously," Select Board member and Town Clerk Susie Haughwout said at a meeting on Wednesday. "They proceeded through the exercise and anticipated what we were trying to get them to do very much ahead of schedule. We expected them to take longer to make these decisions."

Haughwout and Select Board Chairman John Gannon were co-planners in the exercise, staying in touch during the July 29 drill via text messaging on their cell phones. Participating were the Wilmington police and fire departments, the town's Highway Department, Deerfield Valley Rescue, the MOOver busing service and the Community Emergency Response Team, which formed after Tropical Storm Irene had occurred and was identified as a goal of long-term recovery in planning with FEMA.

Haughwout was stationed in a simulation cell in Northfield with about 40 people. Most of them were familiar with dealing with emergencies.

"It was a little challenging for me," she said. "By the end of the day I realized I was probably the only really green civilian in the room. Everyone else is either paid to do this for their full-time job or they have had 30 years of experience."

Gannon stayed local, helping at the emergency operation center during the morning then directing efforts at Hayford Field in the afternoon. The latter part involved helicopter evacuations for citizen participants.

Certain information did not need to be "injected" into the exercise with tasks getting accomplished ahead of schedule, said Gannon. As part of the drill, the emergency operation center had to move three times. It went from the fire station to the police station to the Twin Valley Elementary School.

"That went really well," Gannon said. "It was a good experience for me to sit in with my emergency responders and (Town Manager) Scott (Murphy) who was there the entire day, and see how they operated together. I thought it was a really good team effort."

Murphy was handling VT Alert. The system allows towns to provide residents and second homeowners updates on emergencies or issues by phone and e-mail. To sign up, visit vtalert.gov.

Unfortunately, text messages were not working within VT Alert during the drill. But that was not the town's fault, Gannon said.

A year was spent in planning the exercise. Haughwout and Gannon were asked to write a script that involved pneumonic plague cases in Vermont, and earthquakes in Montreal, Canada, and upstate New York. The helicopters came to Wilmington to rescue people from the natural disasters' effect on the Somerset Reservoir. High-water trucks also helped with the acted-out evacuation.

About 50 communities participated in this year's Vermont National Guard-sponsored Vigilant Guard exercise, which included agencies from New York, New Hampshire and other nearby states. The Maine National Guard conducted a similar exercise in November 2013. One state is expected to do so each year.

"Guilford basically played by themselves whereas we were lucky enough to get National Guardsmen here, both air and land, so that we could actually test out an evacuation of the town. That was really good because it gave us an opportunity to cooperate with the guard and work with them, which is something we had to do in Tropical Storm Irene," said Gannon, who promoted the idea of having the National Guard come sooner rather than later — as was done in the exercise — because then they "have their own eyes or ears here. And I think reaction will be faster than (Fire Chief) Ken March calling up to the state emergency operation center and asking for resources."

Evaluations were positive for Wilmington, according to Gannon.

"Did we make a couple mistakes? Yeah. You're always going to make mistakes," he said. "But I think they were really impressed with how we worked the exercise."

In other news:

— The Select Board is looking at updating its policy for funding events. And it's looking to Dover for inspiration.

Both towns use 1 percent local option tax revenue to supply organizers with money to put on events. Talks about proposed new guidelines in Wilmington focused largely on what percentages of in-kind and cash matching dollars should be required. In-kind refers to labor, products or other valuable items that can be included in budgeting for an event.

"We were thinking we wanted to keep in-kind as the lesser of the match because the money was going so fast," said Murphy, who brought a proposal before the board. "A lot of events were using the in-kind match."

The board also spoke about allowing funding to go to events outside Wilmington that would still benefit the town's restaurants, inns and retail businesses. Currently, events must take place in Wilmington in order for an organizer to receive funding through the program.

— The Planning Commission has developed a list of "key projects" aimed at meeting goals within the Town Plan. The Select Board plans to discuss the document — which features items such as quality education, career development, adult education, water quality, bridge and culvert replacements, parking lot expansion, and police and fire relocation — with the commission at an upcoming meeting. Adopting an ordinance on "blight" could help minimize the risk of having vacant buildings.

— The Southwestern Vermont Medical Center still wants to move its Deerfield Valley campus from the intersection of Route 9 and Route 100. Septic issues were cited by board members familiar with the subject.

"We want to ensure that they understood that the town's very interested in having the health center stay in Wilmington," said Gannon, who met with hospital officials along with Select Board Chairman Tom Fitzgerald and Wilmington School Board Chairman Adam Grinold. "We wanted to make sure we were working better with them, cooperating better with them and making them a more critical player in this whole process of what happens with the old school and old town garage site, because they are a potential anchor tenant for both of those properties."

The Wilmington School District owns the school building and the School Board now has the authority to sell it since voters approved of the action last month. A request for proposals went out but the process was deemed unsuccessful by School Board members. Gannon said it was unclear whether another RFP would be issued.

"I think the takeaway from the meeting is that we're going to have an ongoing dialogue going with them," he said of officials at the hospital. "They don't want to be on the old Town Garage site if we're not going to do anything with the old high school and I think that's understandable."

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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