Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 39
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
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Weather Forecast

How Ready Is Princeton? Discussion on Emergency Preparedness Underway

Matthew Hersh

In April of this year, the Princeton area was effectively shut down when a nor’easter dumped over five inches of rain over a 48-hour period. Schools were closed, shops were closed, and streets were gridlocked.

With the exception of a handful of fire calls, and auto accidents, the weather event was more or less incident free, with no serious injuries reported by the Princeton Borough and Township police departments or from Princeton University’s Public Safety department.

While crediting the emergency response protocol implemented by the police and fire departments, and area first aid and rescue squads, a handful of local leaders are now saying that the situation could have been worse, and that Princeton should be better prepared in the event of a catastrophic natural or terrorist disaster, or pandemic.

“Everybody knows they should be concerned with these types of things, and interest rises if there’s a particular interest, but then it goes away,” said Township Committeewoman Vicky Bergman, who, along with Princeton Regional Health Commission Chair Susan Kapoor and member Catherine Hegedus, began thinking about emergency preparedness, particularly for elderly or infirm residents who would not be able to leave their homes or those who might need medication during an emergency.

“The ‘day of’ is too late to start scrambling if something goes down,” Ms. Bergman said.

Last Tuesday, Ms. Bergman appeared before the Health Commission to discuss ways to reach out to the community, as well as considering a phased contract with an outside firm to assist in putting together an emergency response plan. A plan, if implemented, could focus on emergency plans for shops in town, including drug stores where residents would need to fill a prescription, how to contact a resident in the event of a power outage, and an overall information campaign.

The Princetons and Mercer County currently have a reverse 911 alert system in place, but Ms. Bergman said various social agencies, including places of worship, and clubs, should be part of an overall program because of their potential access to an extensive network.

Ms. Kapoor wrote a preliminary proposal looking to increase the level of preparedness in Princeton, as well as seeking outside funding sources for plan implementation. The Borough and Township governing bodies were not receptive to hiring a full-time emergency response coordinator, “so given that, what now can we do?” Ms. Kapoor said.

A firm, Emergency Response Design Group (ERDG) was contacted by recommendation of Township Police Capt. Robert Buchanan, and the Health Commission is now weighing their proposal for a comprehensive emergency plan.

“There had been talk for a long time about the need for an emergency preparedness plan,” said Jeff Kutner, a principal with ERDG whose background includes service with the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad. “This dialogue throughout the entire community needs to be drive forward,” said Mr. Kutner. “People need to be brought to a level where they can understand what’s at stake and what they can actually do.”

Mr. Kutner, who runs ERDG with his brother, Eric, and a third principal, Evan Feuer, were present at last Tuesday’s Health Commission meeting, fielding questions from a probing Commission. As it stands, the Borough and Township could be on board in implementing an estimated $12,000 to $18,000 exploratory first phase plan that would include an overall assessment of the community’s preparation level, Ms. Bergman said.

ERDG supports the creation of an emergency response coordinator post, pointing to the daily operations of such a position. Ms. Bergman, however, acknowledged that the Borough and Township were “not comfortable with that.

“But it would be considered,” if that were the recommendation, she said.

In the meantime, the Health Commission is expected to review Ms. Kapoor’s proposal at its scheduled October 16 meeting, though Ms. Bergman said appropriating financing could be “a tough sell.

“People have a hard time thinking ahead about something that may or may not happen and people don’t want to think about disaster,” she said.

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