A wide range of Island leaders — including selectmen, public health officials and police chiefs — gathered on Wednesday for a special meeting hoping to finally designate an emergency dispensing site for the Vineyard in the event of a terrorist attack or outbreak of infectious disease.
And although the meeting, held at the Vineyard Transit Authority building, was marked by a spirit of cooperation and good will, no consensus about a site was reached.
Several Island health agents again offered support for naming the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School as the dispensing site for medicine and inoculations during an emergency, while other public safety officials — including Oak Bluffs police chief Erik Blake — said the site presented logistical problems during the summer months.
Chief Blake said the road layout leading to the school is prone to traffic backups, and he said his department lacked the personnel to watch over the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and Steamship Authority terminal as well as the regional high school.
“Getting the people to the dispensing site in an emergency is paramount,” the chief said. “In Oak Bluffs, all the infrastructure the officers need to protect [during an emergency] is mind-blowing.”
Chief Blake said he supports using the high school as an emergency site during the off-season, but he said the site presents problems from May 15 to Sept. 15 when there are as many as 75,000 or more people on the Island.
As part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, approved in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, communities across the nation are required to establish an emergency dispensing site in the event of infectious disease outbreaks ranging from hepatitis A to a bioterrorism event.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, requires every community to have a written plan identifying emergency sites in their jurisdiction.
Oak Bluffs emergency management coordinator Peter Martell agreed the high school would not make a good dispensing site during the summer. He said upwards of 25,000 cars might head toward the school during an emergency, which would bring traffic to a standstill. He said the volume of cars would make it impossible for Oak Bluffs police to respond to emergency calls and could make the problem worse.
“Getting all those cars to one site just wouldn’t happen . . . people are going to be panicking and trying to get off the Island. I am not trying to be an obstructionist. I am trying to get something that works,” Mr. Martell said.
He said he supports creating four different emergency dispensing sites: one at the high school for Oak Bluffs, another in Edgartown, one in Tisbury and another up-Island for the towns of West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah.
Ron DiOrio, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, agreed.
“We are probably going to do more damage than good if we try to get that many people to one site that time of the year,” he said.
Chief Blake emphasized that all six Island towns must work together during an emergency.
“We’re not suggesting that Oak Bluffs hunker down and be an Island unto itself during an emergency. That idea has been miscommunicated before,” he said.
Many still feel the high school is the best choice for a dispensing site. An Islandwide group representing the six Island towns, the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and Dukes County has been working on the plan since 2005. The consensus among that group — which includes health agents and designated emergency management coordinators — is that the high school is the best site.
Edgartown health agent Matt Poole began Wednesday’s meeting by reading a detailed timeline of all the work that has gone into creating the response plan. He said the high school site was discussed with police and fire chiefs several times over the past few years.
Mr. Poole said training exercises held during several flu vaccinations at the high school have proven the site meets the state guidelines for immunization. He also said creating multiple dispensing sites will require more manpower and will take from an already thin group of available volunteers.
“If we don’t have enough volunteers for one dispensing site, how could we possibly staff two or more?” he said.
Edgartown fire chief Peter Shemeth agreed.
“If you were to break it up and have each town do their own dispensing, there will be a lack of qualified people to give the shot or hand out the pills. It’s a toss-up. Then you have to think about a lack of resources because so many people trained to be volunteers will be sick themselves,” he said.
Ron MacLaren, health director for the tribe, said regulations for providing medicine and immunization will be loosened during an emergency. “The [department of health] has made it clear that in a true emergency getting that medicine to the person comes first and paperwork comes second,” he said.
Although the group did not agree on a dispensing site, they did agree that public communication before an emergency is essential. Tisbury selectman Denny Wortman, who is also chairman of MVTV, volunteered to make a DVD that would tell people what to do and where to go during an outbreak of infectious disease.
West Tisbury health agent John J. Powers said he would work with the staff of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to come up with a traffic study for the regional high school and perhaps other potential sites for dispensing sites.
Discussion about the site is expected again during Wednesday’s all-Island selectmen’s meeting at the Tisbury senior center. Newly elected Cape and Islands Rep. Tim Madden and state Sen. Rob O’Leary are expected to attend. The meeting begins at 5 p.m.