By Julia Purdy
Jan Sotirakis’ idea for a warning siren at the Chittenden dam was inspired by Tropical Storm Irene. Sotirakis, Chittenden’s emergency management director, has developed a proposal for a townwide alarm in the event that Chittenden dam, which holds back Chittenden Reservoir, failed. The danger is not imminent, Sotirakis said, but the state of Vermont classifies the dam as a “high hazard” dam.
Formerly a public health nurse in Rutland and rescue squad EMT from 1982 to 2006, the Pittsfield native was retired when Irene struck in 2011. Sotirakis said she “needed a project” and decided to set up an emergency operations center to meet the crisis. Volunteers worked for 14 days, sending 120 loads of supplies out of Chittenden by pickup truck convoy across the mountain to Pittsfield, Stockbridge, Rochester, Killington, Bridgewater and Mendon, all of which had been cut off from the world. They also worked closely with Rutland Strong.
“Watching what happened in those towns, I realized there was something to be done in Chittenden,” Sotirakis said.
Sotirakis asked the Select Board for an appointment as director of emergency management, and the emergency management team formed in May 2016, which includes the fire chief, the road commissioner, and the town health officer. The team meets monthly and reports directly to the Select Board.
Chittenden Reservoir is a favorite recreation spot, and for over 100 years it has also furnished hydroelectricity for the city of Rutland and environs. While the reservoir lies within the Green Mountain National Forest, Green Mountain Power (GMP) owns the dam itself and monitors the water levels at the dam around the clock from its Post Road location. In the event of an unplanned drop in the water level, signifying a possible breach, GMP would notify the emergency dispatch center, which was recently moved from Rutland to the Rockingham Communication Center located in Westminster, in a cost-cutting move at the state level that was sharply challenged locally.
Sotirakis said GMP’s emergency action plan also includes a “call-down tree” for the fire department and the state police, who would then notify and evacuate residents.
The problem, as Sotirakis sees it, is that while the present dispatching system works under normal conditions, it’s too slow to handle a catastrophe. Current flood inundation maps show that potentially a “breach wave” could reach the center of Chittenden in less than 5 minutes. The torrent would follow the path it took in 1947, down East Creek into Rutland. The 9-1-1 database shows 60 residences in the torrent’s path, she said.
A catastrophic dam breach is unlikely “but because of the magnitude of the damage we had to address it,” Sotirakis said. A direct way of alerting the community was needed.
The Chittenden emergency management team decided to shop for a siren and a place to put it. They considered the existing VT-Alert phone-based warning system, but emergency alerts require individual accounts and the system depends on having a cell phone or computer handy and turned on.
The team solicited bids from three contractors and chose the lowest bidder, American Signal Co. out of Massachusetts. Bids ranged from $42,000 to $139,000. The equipment is a Tempest™ T-128. The only maintenance required is annual replacement of the 12-volt battery.
The siren itself sits atop a pole, total height not to exceed 50 feet, avoiding the need for an Act 250 permit, Sotirakis said. The device requires 24-hour access and 120v service, so after considering four locations, the team approached GMP to locate the pole at the Power House Road substation. GMP granted an easement in July; it has been cleared by the town attorney and insurance company and awaits final signatures.
The equipment will tie into the GMP fiber optic grid and is a “fairly easy hookup,” Sotirakis said. GMP can “push a button” to activate the siren. The siren will be tested several times per year. American Signal did acoustics testing and projected that the siren would be audible at at least 58 decibels as far away as Meadow Lake Drive, where East Creek passes under East Pittsford Road. For comparison, Sotirakis, who lives near Meadow Lake Drive, can hear the Rutland fire station whistle.
What to do if the siren goes off? The emergency management team will develop a set of instructions and notifications through community meetings. Families need to have a flood plan—“Knowing the flow of the water, where would you go?” Sotirakis said. “The school will probably be the safest place in town,” she added.
Flood inundation maps are proprietary information, she said; they can be shared with individual households but cannot be released to the general public.
The town applied for a FEMA hazard mitigation assistance grant of $42,000, of which FEMA will cover 75 percent. The local match of $10,500 still needs to be raised. Once approved, the application will be sent back to the state Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, who will notify Chittenden of final approval.
By Julia Purdy