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‘We were overwhelmed; we recovered’

January 23, 2012

Special to the Standard

EXETER – When a Verizon substation failed during Tropical Storm Irene, Exeter’s carefully-devised plan for dealing with natural disasters went out the window.
“There was failure of the infrastructure,” acknowledges Stefan Coutoulakis, the town’s emergency management director, who found himself with no emergency phone lines.
The system “is only good as long as we have power. We got overwhelmed; we recovered.”
Essential in the recuperation was help from West Greenwich which shared its facilities, allowing him to dispatch fire, rescue and public works crews.
As a result of the storm, Coutoulakis began thinking of regionalized communication.
“There are 6,000 people in Exeter and I pitched the idea of adding West Greenwich which has 5,074,” he explains. His $25,000 grant fund includes $4,500 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“FEMA loves the regional concept. They want to see cooperation.”
A new notification service for Exeter and West Greenwich is a major component of the revamped Emergency Operations Plan, expected to be on the Feb. 6 Exeter Town Council agenda. It is the first update since 2004; Coutoulakis has been working on it for 18 months.
The 2012 plan was written under guidelines of the state Emergency Management Agency and federal Homeland Security.
“It’s a blueprint” for setting the wheels in motion to combat a plethora of potential problems including hurricane, blizzard, flood, wildfire, earthquake, hazardous material spill and even acts of terrorism.
While many of the details are by necessity confidential, the basic plan is 20 pages long; much of the complete document will be public record.
Coutoulakis, a retired fire captain who, besides his work for the town, consults, teaches and trains specialty responders across the country, is enthusiastic about the progress being made locally.
Grant money is already in place to implement the modern communications service and the project has gone to bid.
“I can send out [alerts] to specific areas or town-wide by making a single call,” says Coutoulakis.
The one-touch emergency notification system will have an established database with room for 99 different groups. One group will include all Exeter residents; a second comprises the fire companies; and a third is the town government.
“We set up the groups and the company sets up the system.”
As a result of the prolonged power outage in Exeter during Irene, Coutoulakis created a website with every address in town – including special details about each location that would help emergency crews.
A series of computerized maps allows him to immediately pinpoint where an incident is occurring and send aid.
His phone lists and online maps have already saved several thousand dollars in start-up fees. Coutoulakis expects to recommend a contract for $12,000 over four years.
“It can be up and running in a week” with unlimited local calling.
The revised preparedness plan also identifies the locations of Exeter’s handful of sites using hazardous materials including Verizon, Amtrak and a liquefied natural gas facility.
Another major issue was amending the emergency evacuation plan.
Initially, when people begin fleeing inland, Coutoulakis notes, “Everybody is going through Exeter. Nobody said ‘Could we come through there?’ If all this traffic is coming down Route 102, it’s passing the fire stations [and impeding the ability of trucks and rescue vehicles to get out.] We had to reroute the traffic around that to the west – Connecticut – or north on Route 95.”
The plan’s goal, he says, is to have residents and emergency teams working in concert.
“During an emergency, time freezes.”

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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