Emergency planning: Middlebury’s officers prepare for the worst

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury has established itself as one of the safest towns in the state and indeed the country, but local emergency responders want residents to know they’re prepared for any potential disruption to the serenity of Addison County’s shire town — whether it be man-made or courtesy of Mother Nature.
The Middlebury selectboard on March 13 approved the most recent version of the town’s “Local Emergency Operations Plan (LEOP),” an 11-page document that essentially lists contacts for the go-to people and organizations that should be contacted in the event of a disaster.
But local residents should rest assured the state-mandated LEOP represents only a fraction of Middlebury’s preparedness planning for a potential future calamity, whether it be flooding, another downtown train derailment or — heaven forbid — a shooter at a school or other public venue.
“We try to prepare for things as best we can,” said Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley, the town’s emergency response coordinator.
In addition to being in charge of Middlebury’s LEOP, Hanley oversees a more elaborate, 204-page document that lists the community’s perceived vulnerabilities — such as flood-prone areas and potential security liabilities — and how emergency responders can address various assaults on those areas.
Middlebury police, fire, rescue and other local public safety organizations are constantly refining the document, which is kept private so as not to let ne’er-do-wells in on the community’s game plan for catastrophic incidents, Hanley explained.
“We used to have it on file at the town clerk’s office, but there were too many things in there that impact our operations, in terms of how we deal with things,” Hanley said. “We don’t want those things to get out. We don’t like to broadcast where we are vulnerable and what the limitations of our abilities are.”
The larger plan includes a 40-page resource list, matching local officials and volunteers to areas and incidents they would be of most use.
“It’s everything from people who can translate, to sign language, to where we can get portable toilets, to who’s got chainsaws — all the stuff you need, up to tactical resources,” Hanley said.
The document also specifies steps for setting up emergency shelters, alternative routes and protocols for monitoring notorious flood locations.
“We know the Middlebury river is going to flood during major storm events,” Hanley said. So the plan sets into motion round-the-clock river monitoring in East Middlebury when the weather reports warrant. Officers are trained to inform nearby residents to evacuate when the Middlebury River reaches a certain level.
It was in October of 2007 that a freight train derailed in downtown Middlebury, toppling 18 gasoline bearing cars. Fortunately, only one of the cars ruptured and the gasoline did not ignite. The incident provided a real-life test for Middlebury and Addison County emergency responders. Their coordinated response was greatly aided by a concise local plan.
“We had our operational plans in place, and it was just a matter of implementing them,” Hanley recalled.
Middlebury had no emergency operations plan prior to Hanley’s arrival 27 year ago.
The town has had to deal with a couple of airplane crashes through the years, and the emergency plan has proven its worth in those cases. The result has been well-informed responders who know the communication frequencies they should use during such incidents so they all know their assignments as they mobilize to the scene, which can be in remote wooded areas.
But Hanley noted it’s difficult for agencies to plan for some crises, such as school-related shootings. Such incidents are fluid, and history has shown many of the perpetrators were dealing with mental health issues that defied logic.
“We don’t have a specific plan for school shootings; there are too many variables involved,” Hanley said. “If you come up with a plan that’s too finite, it’s never going to work… ”
Instead, Middlebury police preach and practice training. Responders — including ambulance and fire services — quickly know the chain of command and what their respective assignments are. This reduces the chances for administrative chaos in a tense and high-adrenaline situation, Hanley noted.
Middlebury is fortunate to have a school resource officer, Vegar Boe, who has experience working in pressure cooker situations. Boe was one of eight Middlebury police officers who in October of 2012 responded to a report of an active shooter in the woods near 5454 Case St. The shooter — the late George Demarais — had allegedly challenged authorities to take his life. Police tried to take Demarais into custody peacefully, but he ignored commands to stop and drop his weapon, according to authorities. Demarais had created a makeshift bunker on his property from which he shot at police, who returned fire and ultimately killed him.
“Everybody did what they were supposed to do, the command structure was in place, these guys went to the sound of fire, they had to advance on this guy under fire and engage him so he wasn’t going to hold hostages at a house down the street, or something like that,” Hanley said. “That’s not written in a plan, because you can’t. There are too many variables, so we have to rely on training people to respond to these things.”
All of the current Middlebury police officers — except for the two newest members — participated in a recent “active shooter” training session at Mill River High School, according to Hanley. The two new officers will likely receive the same training at an upcoming session in Woodstock, Hanley said.
“We acknowledge that training is one thing, but when you’re in a strange environment that you’ve never been in before and a person is shooting at you, things can get very confusing,” Hanley said. “It’s unfortunate in a way we had to deal with that (Demarais incident), but by the same token, I now have six officers here for which (a shooting incident) is not a new thing.”
The chief is pleased to have Boe as the department’s first line of defense if there’s ever an armed assailant in Middlebury schools.
“I’m fully confident that if we were to have a shooter, (Boe) would engage immediately,” Hanley said. “We want to respond immediately to the location where the person is shooting, engage and disrupt that person, and end the shooting. In other words, ‘Make it stop, however you have to make it stop.’”
Middlebury police also prepare individual action plans prior to events they know are likely to generate crowds and/or potential controversy. The department developed such a plan for Charles Murray’s visit last year to Middlebury College, an appearance that spurred student protests and related injuries to Prof. Alison Stanger, the event organizer. Police also drafted an action plan for the peaceful March 14 protest by Middlebury Union High School students for stronger gun laws.
So Middlebury’s emergency responders go to work each day hoping they won’t have to use their planning and training to defuse an actual crisis. But they — and local residents — can take comfort in the fact the safety net is there if needed.
“We know these things often take a minute or two, at the most,” Hanley said of many emergency situations. “Speed (in responding) is of utmost concern.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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