A meeting to help the Jewish community plan for emergencies brought 25 representatives of local synagogues and schools to the Teaneck police headquarters last Thursday night, where public officials urged preparedness.
The town’s large population of observant Jews who don’t watch TV, listen to the radio, or pick up the phone on Shabbat creates a challenge when it comes to alerting residents of an emergency, said town Councilman Elie Katz, one of the organizers of the meeting.
He cited as an example a recent water emergency that took place on Shabbat – when the water company was unable to reach Orthodox Jews to warn them not to drink the water. He also noted the 2010 storm, when a falling tree killed two Teaneck residents.
“Certainly that first big storm was a wake-up call,” Katz said. “We got hold of the mayor and were able to send people to the parks to tell everyone to find shelter.”
“There are lessons to be learned from Hurricane Sandy and the other storms and events that have confronted our community recently,” another councilman, Yitz Stern, said.
But the concerns were not only about weather emergencies.
Both Stern and Katz noted the attacks on Bergen County synagogues that began a year ago, attempts to lure children in neighboring towns, and recent burglaries that took place in Teaneck while homeowners were in synagogue.
Much of the discussion concerned aspects of emergency preparedness that are commonsense but often ignored nonetheless.
“We saw, even before Sandy, that people don’t have a plan in case of a disaster,” police chief Robert A. Wilson said. “They don’t have plans for their homes and the community institutions don’t have disaster plans either. But people can’t call the police and fire departments if they don’t have a plan. We can give you advice on how to plan, but our lights go out when your lights go out, and we have to plan too.”
“Individuals and institutions need to know what their vulnerabilities are. The police know what works and what doesn’t. Surveillance cameras and people designated to watch the perimeter and stay alert are part of that. We also have to discuss cultural and religious issues, because they are necessary to the plan, and you want that plan to work. You cannot afford a failure.”
As part of security planning, institutions should have their administrators send copies of their building floor plans and blueprints to the fire and police departments.
Wilson recommended the work of the Community Security Service, a nonprofit security organization for Jewish institutions that offers a 12-week intensive security training program.
“The police will come and protect you, CSS will teach you how to protect yourself, how to be pro-active,” Wilson said. “But there are also other issues. The rabbis need to tell us how far they are willing to go with their plan and everyone needs to know that when there is a plan, it must be followed. You also need to know how to evacuate your building.
“There are other security concerns as well, like using concrete barriers to protect the babies in their strollers on the sidewalks. You have to worry about drivers who are busy texting and lose control. There is funding to provide for these measures, and we will help you apply for grants.”
The public officials urged residents to be alert to possible security risks, and not to hesitate to call the police. If you see a suspicious person photographing a school or a synagogue, or looking as if he or she is “casing” a location, “don’t wait five days to send me an email,” Katz said. “Call the police. We know you don’t want to look like a fool, but we would rather have 100 calls, even if only one of them proves to be serious.”
Similarly, Sgt. John deLuka of the Bergen County bomb squad urged everyone to be alert for suspicious packages and for people being in places they should not be. He said people should call the police department; someone there will call the bomb squad.
“Think about what belongs where and what is out of place or if something is wrong,” he said. “You need to be involved. The threats are out there. It is incumbent upon you to keep the conversation going after tonight.”
Fire Chief Anthony Verley urged Teaneckers to register their contact information on the town’s municipal website, www.teanecknj.gov, so emergency workers can find them, they can receive robocalls, and contact people can come to their doors on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
“The message is preparedness,” Verley said.
Part of preparing also involves reaching out to your neighbors.
“Teaneck has 5,800 people over 65,” he said. “If they need shelter, there is no place better to be 99 percent of the time than at home. But neighbors need to know that. Someone has to stay in touch.
“When there is a storm alert, people should store a week’s supply of food and water for at least a week, and be prepared with a different plan if the power stays off longer,” he continued. “Before the storm hits, get rid of debris on your property, batten the hatches, and top off your gas tanks. Be careful with generators – they need to be at least 20 feet away from your house. Know where your closest fire alarm is. Pull the lever for medical or fire and police emergencies, and stay at the fire box until help arrives.”
Teaneck officials plan to continue the discussion. The next seminar, which is by invitation only, is scheduled for Feb. 7.