Friday, February 19, 2010

Outage emergency shelters remain in short supply

Only Bellevue Elementary School is equipped for refugees


By TONY EVANS
Express Staff Writer

Officials are considering installing emergency backup diesel generators like this one to school buildings. The buildings could then be used as emergency shelters in case of a blackout. Photo by David N. Seelig

During the 2009 Christmas blackout, which lasted about 24 hours, emergency plans included transporting people threatened by cold temperatures to Carey, which still had power. The power returned on Christmas Day before evacuations began. But what if the power went out again tomorrow?

"People are beginning to consider the alternatives and come up with plans to mitigate power outages," said Chuck Turner, chairman of Blaine County's Local Emergency Plan Committee.

The committee, which was formed 10 years ago and meets monthly, is composed of first responders and elected officials from all cities in the county.

In case of another prolonged winter blackout, Bellevue Elementary School would be the most likely emergency shelter in the Wood River Valley. Neither Hailey, Ketchum nor Sun Valley have large buildings equipped to serve as winter shelters.

Gene Ramsey, Blaine County chief deputy sheriff and a Bellevue councilman, told the Bellevue City Council on Thursday that a portable generator was available on Christmas to power up Bellevue Elementary School for use as a shelter, but that it was not in place during the blackout.

Ramsey said in an interview that the generator, which had been given to the school district by the county for the purpose of powering a shelter, had been stored and used recently at the airport, but that it had not been powered up in two years. He said the generator would be transported soon to Boise for renovation.

"Bellevue Elementary School could provide sustained electrical power, but a big generator could burn $9,000 a week just in fuel costs," Ramsey said. "If we have to totally rely on generators, they should probably already be in place on the building."

Ramsey said Local Emergency Plan Committee members are considering retrofitting large buildings with diesel-burning electrical generators to use as shelters in case of another winter blackout.

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"I think that is what people are looking at now," he said.

Only Bellevue Elementary School has a transfer switch and compatible generator to house large numbers of refugees in case of a winter emergency. However, Ramsey said it would have taken up to 10 hours to get the portable generator into operation at the school on Christmas.

The Community Campus in Hailey, which served well during the 2007 Castle Rock Fire, is not wired to accommodate a generator to power up the building, said Howie Royal, Blaine County School District's director of buildings and grounds.

"Through an electrical redesign, portions of the building could be made suitable for a shelter," Royal said.

Ramsey said dedicated generators already exist at emergency and communications facilities in the valley and are regularly tested. He said an emergency shelter generator could cost as much as $150,000 and another $60,000 to retrofit the building.

The Ketchum City Council voted unanimously earlier this week to purchase a diesel generator to power Ketchum City Hall. It will cost from $58,000 to $70,000.

Mayor Randy Hall recommended that Fire Chief Mike Elle explore the possibility of installing a generator at the YMCA or a school to provide an emergency winter shelter in Ketchum.

"It is a huge concern," said Elle.

Tony Evans: tevans@mtexpress.com




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