Snowmobile crashes, FD funding and staffing discussed at north NY emergency conference

Dozens gathered last week to discuss emergency preparedness issues faced by first responders and healthcare personnel in the state's north country


Julie Abbass
Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

LOWVILLE, N.Y. — More than 45 people representing emergency-focused organizations and health care facilities throughout Lewis, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties gathered last week to discuss emergency preparedness challenges in the north country at a conference hosted by the Lewis County Health System and the county’s public health department.

According to event organizer Shawn Thornton, senior program manager at the hospital, the focus of the event arose from his own curiosity as a newcomer to the region last year from Boston about how emergency issues are approached in an area as unique as the north country.

The Winter Recreation Preparedness Panel at the North Country Emergency Preparedness Conference included discussion about how to respond to snowmobile crashes. (Photo/Lewis County General Hospital)
The Winter Recreation Preparedness Panel at the North Country Emergency Preparedness Conference included discussion about how to respond to snowmobile crashes. (Photo/Lewis County General Hospital)

“In my first meeting with Bob Mackenzie, he told me that here in the north country we are remote and a lot of people don’t understand how unique we are, so we have to kind of take care of ourselves before anyone else can help us,” Mr. Thornton said in an interview, “That’s always stayed with me. I wanted to highlight some of those things that are unique in this meeting.”

With recreation, especially snowmobiling, providing a boost in north country economies, Mr. Thornton wanted to look at “what happens when things go badly” in the remote reaches of the counties.

A recreation panel discussion featuring Joe Austin, Lowville Fire Department Chief; Brian Bedell, NYS Snowmobile Association; Sgt. Michael Bice, State Police; Lt. Joel Nowalk, state Department of Environmental Conservation; Josh Levesque, Lewis County Search and Rescue; and Robert Mackenzie, director of the Lewis County Emergency Management Office.

The level of collaboration required for the responders to provide services at the sites of snowmobile accidents made an impression on Mr. Thornton and other attendees.

“It isn’t just the emergency responders that get involved, it’s the DEC, the snowmobile clubs, too,” said Mr. Thornton, “We even invited a Mercy Flight pilot to talk about how they are involved.”

From creating impromptu landing zones for helicopter evacuations to the tenacity and planning required to find an accident in a place without cell service, the emergency preparedness for remote locations is cooperative, well-coordinated and effective efforts Mr. Thornton said.

Mr. Mackenzie shared his insights into the cultural sensitivity and understanding that needs to be learned in preparation for providing the substantial Amish community in the area assistance.

“They are an important part of our community and there are times they will need EMS and fire services. We would be remiss not to learn and understand their culture,” Mr. Mackenzie said.

Mr. Mackenzie said one of the biggest challenges in an emergency situation is that although Amish adults usually speak English well, children under 5 years old only speak Pennsylvania Dutch, a Germanic language.

For six years, Mr. Mackenzie read all he could about Amish culture and language while keeping track of his own observations and experiences to create a class he now presents all over the state, called Caring for the Amish, which he shared with those at the conference.

From Lowville Fire Chief Joe Austin, attendees learned about the declining number of volunteers to fight fires based on an informal survey he sent to other chiefs around the county.

In Lewis County, the average age of a firefighter is about 40 years old, Mr. Austin said, and for every one person joining a fire crew, there are two departing.

This is attributed in part to the extensive 22-week training needed and the fact that people at prime firefighting age often have little time to spare.

“Some of our people are working two jobs, they have their families, their kids’ games to go to. They just don’t have much time left to give,” Mr. Austin said. “I tell people if you can help out at all, that’s fine, then help, but I need people who are going to respond.”

Mr. Austin also addressed the funding gaps that exist for most fire departments and the challenges filling those voids.

“I’m not sure people realize that when we do fundraising, it isn’t for the ‘extras,’ it’s just to keep afloat and to get what we need to do our job,” Mr. Austin said.

The point of the conference was to share information, improve awareness between emergency sectors and create a strong network throughout the north country.

“As we generate some conversation through this forum, we can turn it into an annual conference and maybe we can get some of the people that need to hear this information about our area to engage,” said Mr. Thornton.

The Dec. 10 event was held at the Elks Club in Lowville.

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©2019 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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