Conference participants say communication is key
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Conference participants say communication is key

The Mumbai massacre was on participants’ minds as the second annual Bergen County Human Relations Conference got under way last Thursday under the heading: “When Crisis Strikes: Communities Working Together.”

Ricardo Salerno, first assistant state attorney general, opened the conference, saying, “All crises are local” and that the community must be ready to react to them.

“We’ll never be measured by our success, we will only be measured by our failures,” he said. “Mumbai reminds us that we should always be prepared.”

The session, at Bergen Community College, was sponsored by the Bergen County Human Relations Commission, the county prosecutor’s office, and the New Jersey Human Relations Council.

Sgt. Gina Garguilo, prosecutor’s office counter-terrorism officer, says that information-sharing is critical in a crisis.

The terror attacks in Mumbai last month were just the latest in a string of manmade and natural crises that have touched the world.

“We in the United States have witnessed the tragedy of 9/11 and devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as the earthquakes and tsunamis that have occurred in other parts of the world,” said Joy Kurland, Human Relations Commission chair, setting the tone for the four-hour conference. Kurland also heads the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Participants included law enforcement and emergency officials, representatives of the medical services, the media, and a panel of two ministers and a rabbi. The session was moderated by Sgt. Sylvia Presto of the prosecutor’s office, vice chairwoman of the commission, and opening remarks were offered by County Executive Dennis McNerney and prosecutor John Molinelli.

The common thread of the wide-ranging discussions was communication – both between agencies and officials charged with the public’s safety and from them to the public at large.

Whether it’s terrorism or another crime that affects public safety, information-sharing is critical, said Sgt. Gina Garguilo, counter-terrorism officer in the prosecutor’s office. The others on her panel – Capt. James Sheehan of the Paramus Police Department, Lt. Dwane Razzetti of the Bergen County Office of Emergency Management, Janet Sharma of the Volunteer Center of Bergen County, and Haworth Mayor John DeRienzo – agreed.

Information exchange starts at the grassroots level, Garguilo said, and citizens should call the police if they notice something suspicious. Information is reviewed at the county and state levels, and by the FBI, she said. “We put it together like a puzzle,” she said, with analysis and feedback.

Bergen County Schools Superintendent Dr. Aaron Graham says that every school district must have a crisis plan.

Sheehan of Paramus noted that “community” is a broad term, as during the day his town swells with workers and passers-by. “If you travel through Paramus on your way to work, you are part of our community,” he said.

“Everybody is a cog in a very important wheel,” he said, noting that the Mumbai massacre had ripples in Bergen County, through business and family links.

Sharma, the volunteer coordinator, said members of the public can often do the “dirty work that has to be done to start recovery ” after a disaster, but the goal is to get volunteers trained in advance, so they help rather than hinder the recovery.

“Recovery is going to succeed by neighbors helping neighbors,” she said.

DeRienzo noted that every town has an office of emergency management and a plan delineating the duties of officials and employees. In Bergen County “we are ahead of the curve,” he said.

Planning and communication were underlined in the next panel, which included Bergen County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Aaron Graham, who noted that in past years school safety mostly involved fire drills. Now, however, bombs and shootings are part of the dangers that must be protected against.

Each district must have a safety plan in place, with staff trained in crisis management, Graham said. Districts also have a “continuity of education” service plan, on how to respond if schools must be closed for a time. Coordinating this is a big job, with 76 school districts in the county and some half-million students attending every day.

“It’s a whole different world,” he said. “You can’t overestimate the concern of a parent when crisis strikes,” he said, noting the use of letters sent home and telephone alerts.

Getting the word out was the keynote of the presentation by Tim Scheld, director of news and programming for WCBS Newsradio.

“I’m a father, I get scared too,” said Scheld, urging public agencies to cooperate with the media, which is too often seen as an adversary.

“The answer to fear is information,” he said. “In a time of crisis our job is to deliver information.”

He urged officials to have a plan for updating the media, with an up-to-date “robust” Website as an example. He noted that the New York City mayor’s office has an instant two-way radio link to the radio station.

The message of communication was amplified by representatives of Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, designated the region’s Medical Coordination Center. They sketched the medical resources and challenges during a disaster.

“Every disaster will have medical consequences,” said Thomas Rose, head of the MCC program at Holy Name. He explained that the state is divided into five regions, with Holy Name serving as the MCC for the northeast. To work with other hospitals in the area, the MCC has redundant communications abilities, including phones, cable, two-way radio, and video-conferencing.

Edward Gerrity, assistant vice president for emergency preparedness at the hospital, detailed the physical facilities. The new emergency center, for example, can sustain itself with power, water, and heating and air conditioning.

“If we have a large scale event we need all hospitals working together,” he said, noting that communications are smoothed by the fact that emergency officials know each other. Planning is constant, he said. “We have meetings to discuss meetings.”

Kathleen Wolfl, director of medical services at the hospital, added another chilling scenario to the mix – a possible flu pandemic.

During a massive outbreak of dangerous flu, supplies will be drained. “There will be an event when hospitals will have to say ‘no more,'” she said.

In the case of such a pandemic, she said, choices will be made as to who will get an IV and who won’t, or who will get a respirator. “We will face things we have never seen before,” she said.

In the day’s final panel, participants heard three members of the clergy address the emotional and spiritual toll of disasters. The three, ministers Dr. Willard Ashley and the Rev. Julie Taylor and Rabbi Stephen Roberts, work with Disaster Chaplaincy Services of New York City.

Disaster does not stop at political boundaries. “You didn’t go across the river, the river came to you,” said Roberts, about 9/11.

Taylor noted that disasters can be small in scope, but with effects felt far and wide. She referred to the recent shooting in a Clifton church, which left two dead, and said this certainly resonated with congregants at a Knoxville, Tenn., church where a shooting earlier in the year left two dead and six wounded.

The chaplaincy group works with people of all faiths, and Ashley stressed the need to be sensitive to other backgrounds. “Be yourself, but have respect for the faith and traditions of others.”

Those giving aid, including the clergy themselves, may need special attention. Roberts told of a mandatory debriefing for chaplains aiding 9/11 workers and survivors and the need to seek comforting words.

“Who do you share your heart moments with?” the rabbi asked. “If you don’t share, your heart will stop.”

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