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Brattleboro changes emergency notification system

With reductions to Entergy's emergency management funding on the horizon, BFD rethinks sending messages

BRATTLEBORO—For a dozen years, the town of Brattleboro has piggybacked its mass emergency notification system off one employed by Vermont Yankee.

With the plant’s closure, the Code Red system will eventually disappear.

Meanwhile, the state is ramping up its new emergency alert system, VT-Alert, and offering trainings to interested municipalities.

While Code Red’s remaining lifespan is uncertain now that the plant has shut down, Brattleboro Fire Chief Michael Bucossi said now is an opportune time to make the shift.

Bucossi informed the Selectboard at its Feb. 3 meeting that the town will shift to the state’s VT-Alert this summer.

“As Brattleboro moves away from using Code Red, VT-Alert will be used by local officials as a means of mass notification to alert citizens of warnings and emergency information on things such a severe weather, significant highway closures, hazardous materials spills, and many other emergency conditions,” said Bucossi.

The town called its adaptation of the Code Red system, the Brattleboro Emergency Notification System (BENS). The system allowed the town to send messages en masse to anyone who voluntarily signed up for the service.

Entergy has always supplied towns within the 10-mile emergency planning zone with Code Red to help warn residents if something happened at the nuclear plant, said Bucossi.

Brattleboro, as the biggest population center in the area, received training from Entergy to administer and create the Brattleboro-specific database and alert system, BENS.

Bucossi said BENS got a workout during Tropical Storm Irene almost four years ago. The Town has also used BENS to notify people in specific neighborhoods of downed power lines or localized flooding.

To replace BENS, said Bucossi, the town has opted to shift to the state’s VT-Alert. The all-hazards alert system uses a web-based portal and can send information to landline phones, cell phones, through the web, email, or through other technologies.

Bucossi said the switch from BENS to VT-Alert should happen June 1.

“I’m very excited,” said Bucossi of switching to VT-Alert. “I see it as a good tool for notification.”

The phased overlap of the two systems will allow the town to work out any kinks in the state system while BENS remains operational as a backup, said Bucossi.

VT-Alert in Brattleboro, despite being state operated, will be controlled locally, he said.

The school systems use VT-Alert, said Bucossi.

Any residents signed up to BENS must join the VT-Alert system if they wish to continue receiving alerts.

Residents can choose to receive statewide, county, or town alerts.

Bucossi said that during an emergency, the town can opt to have messages sent to any cell phone in town. The VT-Alert system can relay messages through local cell towers to ping all cell phones in the vicinity.

“It’s a great added feature if we have a large emergency,” he said. The system can alert visitors to emergencies along with residents.

Along with informing people of the type of emergency in the area, VT-Alert provides response updates so residents know the steps local and state agencies are taking to address the emergency.

The system can also send out messages detailing protective actions or safety measures to take in an emergency, said Bucossi.

Bucossi outlined a timeline for public education and implementing the shift to VT-Alert.

Over the next four months, the BFD will post Q & A sheets on the town, fire, and police department websites. Informational brochures will also appear at a number of key community areas like the library and River Garden.

In May, the fire department will ramp up its outreach with press releases, signage, a weekly BENS message, and interviews with local media.

At the board meeting, vice-chair Kate O’Connor said she signed up for VT-Alert some time ago. She jokingly admitted she signed up for alerts for Windham County in addition to Brattleboro, “because I’m nosy.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #292 (Wednesday, February 11, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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