Agencies evaluate Cortland emergency drill


David Blatchley/contributing photographer
Cortland firefighter Colleen Price gives a fellow worker a medical check following his decontamination Saturday, during a simulated chemical spill at the old Buckbee-Mears building on Kellogg Road.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The various agencies involved in a chemical leak drill Saturday met Wednesday to discuss the exercise, and the general consensus was that improved communication and more training countywide would help the county’s emergency preparedness in the future.
The drill simulated a dangerous chemical leak at the old Buckbee-Mears building on Kellogg Road, allowing emergency response plans to be set in motion for county and city agencies, including evacuations, the establishment of shelters and chemical response teams.
“I think we saw that the individual functions went well, the agencies were very capable of performing their necessary functions,” said Fred Bachner, chair of the Local Emergency Planning Committee, which oversaw the planning for the drill. “As with in any emergency though, and you only need to look as far as Hurricane Katrina, communication between the agencies was something that could be improved upon.”
The drill brought together more than 200 people from 14 different agencies, Bachner said.
One problem that arose during the drill came when evacuees from neighborhoods surrounding the spill site arrived at a Red Cross shelter at the former armory on Wheeler Avenue before the Red Cross had been officially notified.
“That was a challenge, with the notification being late, everyone was there just waiting to hear from us,” said Bonnie Heath, executive director of the local Red Cross.
Exactly which agency is responsible for notifying the Red Cross depends on the situation, Heath said, but one way to easily address the problem is to make sure all agencies know the best way to notify the Red Cross, by calling its always available answering service.
Bachner said some of the confusion early on in establishing the shelters could be avoided in the future by establishing designated points for shelters throughout the city.
“That way, even if the Red Cross hasn’t arrived yet, the police or the fire department can direct people to a certain spot without any doubts,” Bachner said.
Mary Jane Uttech, deputy director of the County Health Department, said communication, while always an issue in emergency situations, was overall fairly good.
She noted however, that this drill allowed for a little too much reliance on cellular phones.
“I think we’d like to try a scenario in the future where cell phones aren’t an option,” Uttech said. “We’ve been asking ourselves, what would happen in a situation where we have a major problem to deal with, but where the cell phone towers are down.”
Bob Duell, coordinator of fire emergency management for Cortland County, said, for this drill at least, communication on the ground between agencies was excellent.
“I thought it went very well in terms of face-to-face verbal communication,” Duell said. “I think one thing we need to look at is getting more people involved and trained to handle situations like this.”
Duell and Bachner agreed that more training is needed for people to be able to operate in an Emergency Operations Center setting.
Bachner said the county conducts some incident command system training, which prepares emergency personnel to deal with a situation from a command standpoint, but more advanced-level training was a necessity.
“They need to be able to look at a broader picture of an emergency so they can see the whole incident and not just, say, putting a fire down,” Bachner said.
Heath said manpower is an issue the Red Cross always needs to address. The local chapter of the Red Cross has about 65 disaster volunteers, she said, but it has none in Cincinnatus or Preble.
“We need people in each community who can respond right away,” Heath said.
The drill taught the various involved agencies numerous lessons, Duell said, and was all part of an ongoing process to remain as prepared as possible.
Duell said the county would try to conduct a full-scale drill every other year or so, and would continue to do scaled-back “table top” drills, which put emergency personnel in a room together to walk through each step they would take in an emergency situation, a few times a year.
“You learn something with each drill,” he said. “You try to get as many people involved in it as possible, and then hopefully those people will pass on what they learn to people who weren’t here for the full-scale drill, in case a real situation comes up.”


County gas cap is unlikely

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — It is unlikely the county will cap its sales tax on gasoline, according to Cortland County Legislature Majority Leader Ron Van Dee.
The state enacted a gasoline sales tax cap June 1, offering counties the option to do to the same on a local level.
The county is expected to release a statement about the issue today. Legislators have been surveyed to see what their opinion is, Van Dee said.
“I don’t believe they were in favor of it,” Van Dee (D-5th Ward) said. “I think the legislators needed to go to their town and villages and ask them how they feel, and I think the majority of them did that.”
The state now charges a 4 percent tax on only the first $2 of a gallon of gasoline. The state gave counties until June 16 to decide if they would do the same.
Cortland County charges a 4 percent tax on the price of gasoline.
Estimates from the office of County Administrator Scott Schrader put the total loss of revenue for 2006, should the tax cap be enacted, at $700,000.
This means the county itself would stand to lose an estimated $392,000, which could only be recouped with a 1.5 percent increase in property taxes.
Legislator Larry Cornell (D-Mara-thon, Lapeer) said he was waiting to hear from Legislative Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward) regarding recent developments in the debate over the tax cap.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” Cornell said. “I just feel if we take it off, it could jeopardize our income. We rely on sales taxes and property taxes, and I’m just afraid it could raise property taxes.”
Brown and Schrader were unavailable for comment this morning.
Van Dee said that in conversations with city Director of Administration and Finance Andy Damiano, he was told enacting the cap would require raising the city’s property tax by as much as 3 percent.
“In your heart you’d love to do it for the people,” Van Dee said, “but if it costs them more in the end. …”


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Northwoods employees plead innocent

Staff Reporter

Five employees of a Kellogg Road nursing home who were indicted on felony falsifying record charges and other misdemeanors pleaded not guilty at their arraignment Thursday in Cortland County Court.
The indictment was filed May 15, and stemmed from neglect and endangerment incidents between January and March involving a patient at Northwoods Rehabilitation and Extended Care Facility.
The attorney general’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit filed charges against the employees in January after a hidden camera placed in the room of a resident in a chronic vegetative state for three months in 2005 showed patient neglect by employees.
The investigation was based on complaints of neglect at Northwoods made to the state Attorney General’s Office prior to the investigation.
Theresa Loy, 49, Steven Nadeau, 38, Mary Kenyon, 39, all of Cortland, Renee Fulmer, 30, of East Freetown and Judy Abreu, 23, of the Bronx, were arraigned in January in City Court.
They all pleaded not guilty to numerous felony charges of falsifying business records and misdemeanor endangerment and neglect charges. The case was then transferred to County Court.


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