Reverse 911 fails to alert Mass. residents of toxic smoke
By Patrick Cassidy
The Cape Cod Times
YARMOUTH, Mass. — A reverse 911 system designed to alert residents during an emergency was never activated during Friday's fire at a cranberry bog off Knob Hill Road.
Neighbors of the bog yesterday disputed claims that they were contacted through the emergency system about potentially toxic smoke and told to stay inside.
"There was a big lack of communication," said Jennifer Crimaldi, 45, who lives east of the bog on Mayflower Terrace.
None of the neighbors Crimaldi spoke with received a telephone call warning them of the fire, she said.
Yesterday, Yarmouth Fire Chief Michael Walker acknowledged there was a communication breakdown.
"The deputy chief is presently going back and investigating how that occurred with the reverse 911," he said.
System never activated
Walker said he gave the order to call the Barnstable County Sheriff's Office and activate the system, but somewhere in the local chain of command the action was cancelled.
"There's no way around it," he said. "The system did not fail, it just was not activated."
The reverse 911 system, which has been in place for less than a year, is operated by the sheriff's office and funded through a Department of Homeland Security grant.
The sheriff's communications department was first contacted about activating the system shortly before 2 p.m. on Friday, Sheriff James Cummings said yesterday.
When sheriff's officials returned a message about the "rapid alert system" they were told it was not needed and could be done through Yarmouth police, Cummings said.
Yarmouth police called the sheriff's office shortly after 5 p.m. asking that the system be activated. When asked what area should be targeted, the caller referred to the same area covered by the earlier call that never went out, Cummings said. When told that the first call had never been placed, the Yarmouth police official told the sheriff's communications staff not to place the call, Cummings said.
Yarmouth police and fire officials are now trying to pin down where the breakdown occurred and make sure it never happens again, Walker said.
The failure to warn residents is only one of the concerns Crimaldi and other neighbors voiced yesterday about the response to the blaze in a building owned by Craig Williams at the Old Colony Cranberry Bog.
While many firefighters appeared fit, the "sluggish" response by others raised fears about what might happen during a large fire where people are in danger, Crimaldi said.
Firefighters responded to the blaze from across the region. Walker said firefighters in Yarmouth must pass a physical fitness test before they are hired. After they get the job they are evaluated based on whether or not they can perform specific tasks, he said.
It would be difficult for a bystander to know what kind of shape a firefighter is in based on their movements while wearing heavy equipment and breathing through an air mask, he said.
Crimaldi and other neighbors also questioned the scale of the response, arguing that the bog owner was careful and it was unlikely he would put his neighbors in jeopardy by keeping a dangerous mix of chemicals around.
A woman who lives on Mayflower Terrace and declined to be identified, said she did not think there was any need to "lock down" the neighborhood.
"I really think it was overstated," she said.
But the lack of information on what was happening left neighbors confused, the woman said.
Janet Machunski, 73, was barred from returning to her home for most of the day. When she got home shortly before 8 p.m. on Friday she had nine messages on her answering machine but none from emergency officials warning her about the smoke, she said.
Fire officials played it safe in calling for people to stay out of the neighborhood or inside their homes, Walker said.
"If you know you have this cocktail of chemicals and fuel and so forth, erring on the side of caution is always the best way to go," he said.
Although the fire did not appear to pose a major environmental hazard, the building contained diesel fuel, gasoline, propane and fertilizer, according to fire officials and Williams.
The fire's origin has been narrowed down to an area around a drill battery pack, but a definitive cause has not been found yet, Walker said.
Public safety officials who responded to the fire will hold a meeting to critique their performance on a date that has yet to be determined, he said.
Copyright 2009 Cape Code Times