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Jefferson County emergency operations center fully mobilized as ice storm persists

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Jefferson County’s Office of Emergency Management is using lessons learned during an ice storm nearly 16 years ago to help ensure public safety during this weekend’s storm.

For the first time since January 1998, the office fully activated its emergency operations center in the basement of the County Office Building, 175 Arsenal St.

The move was in response to severe icing conditions that knocked out power to more than 25,000 National Grid customers within the county, prompting a state of emergency to be declared.

“Things are working well,” Joseph D. Plummer, the office’s director, said Sunday morning. “We’re holding our own.”

Mr. Plummer said operations have run smoothly in part because many of the roughly 50 volunteers and county employees staffing the center gained invaluable experience doing so in the 1998 storm.

“There was a lot learned. They’re saying, ‘this works,’ or ‘that doesn’t work; don’t do it again,’” Mr. Plummer said.

The office opened the center at 1 p.m. Saturday in anticipation of the storm.

Mr. Plummer said advances in predicting weather patterns achieved since 1998 allowed the office to better detect the approaching storm and mobilize sooner.

He said the public also appeared to take more precautionary measures, owing to the 1998 experience.

“We’re not seeing a lot of individual, separate needs,” he said. “The fruits of our (1998) labor paid off.”

He said no fatalities or serious injuries had been reported as of early Sunday, although a Dimmick Street man was taken to Samaritan Medical Center just before noon for treatment of a head injury suffered when he was struck by a falling, ice-covered tree limb.

County Legislature Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, R-Watertown, recalled that many farmers were critically affected by the 1998 storm, but on Sunday only one call came in to the center from a farmer seeking assistance.

“Somebody’s generator failed, but this time, they all have generators,” Mrs. Fitzpatrick said. “That’s a lesson learned from years ago.”

Mr. Plummer said another innovation made since 1998 is the advent of social media, on which his office is relying to get the word out about the situation, primarily posting information about travel advisories, the state of emergency and weather conditions on Facebook.

He said his office’s Facebook page — http://wdt.me/R5u6Fy — has received about 40,000 visits since the operations center opened and the number of “likes” on the page increased from 845 on Saturday to 2,179 by Sunday morning.

Residents also are encouraged to follow the “#Jeffeoc” or “#NNYIceStorm” hashtags for the latest information.

A non-emergency phone line has been established at 786-6940, although those with emergencies should still call 911.

Emergency shelters have been set up at the Recreation Park in Cape Vincent, as well as fire departments in Alexandria Bay, Chaumont, Dexter and Brownville.

The American Red Cross also opened a shelter at Watertown High School.

Mr. Plummer said it is unknown how long the emergency operations center will remain open.

He said that decision will depend largely on power restoration efforts.

National Grid had mobilized about 1,600 workers in the area before the storm and Mr. Plummer said company officials have informed him that, unlike in 1998, the utility did not lose any of its primary service feeds into the county and it “just has to get distribution back up and operable.”

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