IN THE DARK

By GIB SNYDER

OBSERVER City Editor

Do you remember what were you doing Aug. 14, 2003? Fredonia Police Chief Brad Meyers remembers.

Meyers, along with public officials in charge of looking after some 50 million people from Ohio through the northeast, were figuring out what to do as a result of the loss of electrical power from a massive power blackout that occurred that afternoon.

“We ended up having an emergency management meeting with the department heads, with then Mayor (Frank) Pagano, to come up with strategies to deal with the situation and called in additional personnel from the police department for road and traffic control,” Meyers recalled. “Then we tried to conquer the issues surrounding getting a generator for the police department up and running. As a byproduct of that, we did end up replacing the generator here and going to a natural gas generator for the police department because of the issue we ran into during that blackout.

“Many of the outlets and lights within the police department were not wired into the generator at that time so we replaced the generator with a natural gas generator and we re-wired the breaker box to include all of the lights and outlets within the police department on the generator.”

Fortunately for most of Western New York, the power that we lost – around 4 p.m. that afternoon – was restored by midnight the next day. Others, however were not as fortunate as power was not restored for days.

But at that time of the event, no one knew how long the outage would last.

Meyers said the community rose to the occasion during the outage.

“Everybody looked out for each other. I remember it was a very hot day and everybody kind of moved outdoors to get relief from the heat,” Meyers said. “I think everybody just was a good neighbor to each other; checked on neighbors who had physical ailments or were up there in years. We didn’t have any increase in criminal activity or bad behavior.”

Dunkirk Police Chief David Ortolano said the city is set up to operate in an emergency situation, with communication capability a key – powered by a natural gas backup generator.

“It powers our dispatch center, it powers 911, it powers our communications. The radio towers are on generators so they won’t go out of service,” Ortolano explained. “We can still operate our day-to-day operations if the power were to go out.”

The chief said an emergency plan would kick in and more officers would be working in an extended power outage.

“We would work with public works and we would get temporary stop signs up in intersections,” he stated. “We would try to be out in all areas as much as possible to make sure that things are OK and businesses aren’t getting broken into and people aren’t out doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”

As for communicating with the public, both chiefs cited the county’s emergency management phone contact system as an option, although both had concerns about cell phones losing power.

“There was no cell phone service during that event so utilizing the reverse 911 during a power outage of that magnitude doesn’t really work,” Meyers recalled. “Getting word out to people is almost impossible other than utilizing a fire department siren and people would not understand what that meant. You wouldn’t use that for a blackout, you would use that for an impending storm or tornado.

“Certainly getting the word out in a situation where the blackout was of the entire northeast as that one was, there just isn’t a way to get the word out. You can certainly drive around and utilize your PA system on a car to advise people, but as far as doing a mass notification like you would prior to a power outage or in a limited power outage issue, those weren’t available to us.”

Meyers noted that while his department now has the capability to communicate in a power outage, “The question would be; who would you call?”

Since the blackout of 2003, backup generators and planning have been part of being ready for the next time.

Fire Chief Keith Ahlstrom reported the city’s three fire halls have natural gas-powered backup generators and could be used as a safety net for residents.

Tony Gugino is the city’s director of public works.

“We’ve got a 220-kilowatt generator for the water treatment plant so that functions. We have a 550 kilowatt generator at the wastewater plant so that can obviously function,” Gugino stated. “We bought a portable trailer-mounted generator off the government surplus list about five years ago that can be used for offsite emergency uses.”

Gugino said if the tanks are both full at the treatment plants there was enough for three days with more available under a preferred delivery system during emergencies. In addition, more help could come from the county’s disaster response team.

A full report on the blackout is available at reports.energy.gov/BlackoutFinal-Web.pdf. It is titled “U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force’s Final Report on the August 14, 2003 Blackout in the United States and Canada: Causes and Recommendations.”

Send comments to gsnyder@observertoday.com.