After a yearlong hiatus, the Island regional emergency planning committee is back in action.
Late last week about 50 people gathered to talk about regional response on the Vineyard in the event of an emergency or disaster, including how to organize regional shelters and off-Island aid.
Emergency management leaders have been busy planning within their respective town boundaries all along, but coordinating an Islandwide emergency response effort has been slower to get off the ground.
At a meeting Thursday night, the group welcomed Oak Bluffs into the fold, voting the town on board as an official member of the regional committee.
“Tonight, with the representation of Oak Bluffs, we will truly represent the Island,” said John Christensen, emergency management director for West Tisbury.
Gary Robinson, emergency management director in Aquinnah, was voted in as the new chairman.
Much of the talk focused on shelters and how to coordinate a regional temporary housing solution for people who are displaced during a disaster.
Emergency shelters on the Island have historically been the responsibility of each Island town.
But the statewide Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, known as MEMA, has encouraged a more cooperative system.
Spokesmen for aid organizations also advocated for a regional approach at the Thursday meeting, saying their already limited resources would be stretched thin if they are forced to assist shelters in six separate towns.
Rachel Potts, who works for the Red Cross, said across the water on Cape Cod, Barnstable County had seen great success in their efforts to regionalize.
“It has worked really well,” she said. “We are able to collaborate and share resources.”
She said her agency could help staff a regional emergency shelter on the Island if needed, but only if it is a regional shelter.
“Given it is an island, we are a little limited on volunteers,” she said. “That is why we really support one regional shelter because we really only have the capacity to run one shelter.”
James Mannion, region two manager for MEMA, also spoke about what are called state-initiated regional shelters, or SERS.
“It’s one shelter that the state can look at, that Salvation Army can look at, that the Red Cross can look at, and say that is where we are focusing all of our resources,” he said.
Representatives from each Island town sat in on the meeting, as well as spokesmen from Dukes County, Gosnold and other regional agencies, including the Vineyard Transit Authority, NStar, the Medical Reserve Corps and the Salvation Army.
No one attended from Oak Bluffs, a town that has not historically participated in the formal regional effort. The previous emergency management director, Peter Martell, objected to the broad-based mission, saying that each town had its own unique problems.
The Oak Bluffs selectmen did not reappoint Mr. Martell last year, instead charging the police and fire chiefs with emergency management responsibilities.
County commissioner Christine Todd asked why no one was present from the town on Thursday.
Mr. Christensen responded that the town was not strictly a member of the committee until the earlier vote, and also that the Oak Bluffs emergency management leaders may have had a conflict with another meeting that night. He said the town has been participating in the monthly meetings of the emergency management directors.
The Islandwide regional emergency planning committee was originally created to coordinate response in the event of exposure to hazardous materials, but the mission was later broadened to include emergency response to natural disasters such as hurricanes as well as public health emergencies.
There are about 20 regional planning committees in the state, but the Vineyard had lagged in its planning.
“We have spent a lot of time trying to move forward with good intent but haven’t had a lot of good success,” said Matt Poole, the Edgartown health agent. He asked if there was a model for hiring someone to coordinate the otherwise volunteer efforts. The Barnstable regional committee has paid staff, though not on a full-time basis.
Going forward, the group will form a shelter subcommittee and will begin taking an inventory of emergency supplies in stock in each town.
Regional efforts are already well established among town police and emergency medical forces and the Island boards of health, which held their first all-Island flu shot clinic in 2006.
This year’s clinic will take place on Oct. 4 from 9 a.m. to noon at the regional high school; vehicle staging will take place at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury and Waban Park in Oak Bluffs.