WATERVILLE — City officials are working long hours to make sure Waterville is addressing the coronavirus pandemic, and nowhere is that more evident than in the Emergency Operations Center at the Fire Department.

There key city officials are set up with desks, computers, phones, a large screen television and other equipment enabling them to stay abreast of local, state and federal information that is emerging hour by hour, while putting into place best practices for the city.

On Monday morning, they were working in the 12,000-square-foot center from long tables 8 to 10 feet apart, while also running their city departments remotely.

Waterville Deputy Police Chief Bill Bonney, right, and Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey discuss operations Monday at the new Emergency Operations Center with the Morning Sentinel at the Waterville Fire Department firehouse. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

Heading up the operations center is police Chief Joseph Massey, whose title is incident commander.

“We’re gathering all the information regarding what we’re facing with the pandemic, analyzing that information and trying to develop some responses for operational people out there that are going to be on the street, putting those particular plans into practice,” Massey said.

The operations center is set up in the second floor classroom in the old fire station which is connected to the newer one. The spacious room with large windows overlooking College Avenue and Main Street is temporary home to not only Massey, but seven others  — fire Chief Shawn Esler, Deputy police Chief Bill Bonney, city Finance Director Aaron Berls, police Sgt. Jennifer Weaver, who supervises the police communications department, Fire Capt. John Gromek and Joel Waye of the city’s information technology, or IT, department.

Berls is the operation center’s finance section chief, making sure expenses are tracked, the city is running smoothly and funds are available to pay expenses. Waye is ensuring equipment is running, meetings are put online when needed and so forth. Weaver, the planning section chief, is reaching out to businesses, nursing homes, group homes and hospitals, developing resource and contact lists and ensuring resources are available. Gromek, logistics section chief, is placing orders and making sure medical supplies, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and other items are available and distributed as needed.

Those city officials are following the model of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Incident Management System, specifically designed for such emergencies. The system includes bringing together key players from city departments to handle logistics, planning and other operations to ensure resources are used in the most efficient way possible.

They are accessing information from each city department as needed and keeping city officials apprised of what’s happening, what programs are being put into place and passing information onto them and the public, according to Massey.

The center also is working with health care professionals, the private sector, grocery stores, some nonprofit organizations, the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, some banks and pharmacies.

Coronavirus pandemic death toll numbers are shown behind Waterville Fire Chief Shawn Esler on Monday as he fields questions from the Morning Sentinel during a tour and question and answer time at the new Emergency Operations Center at the Waterville Fire Department firehouse. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

With the situation changing hour to hour, it is critical they stay informed about what the state and federal Centers for Disease Control are doing and about what the governor and president are saying. Bonney said command center officials are following the news and not only responding to issues that come up in the center, but also putting their heads together to try to predict what is to come.

“I think the teamwork has been amazing over the last week and a half,” Bonney said.

Until Monday, when Massey returned to work from vacation, Bonney was deputy incident commander for the last week, assisting Esler, who served as incident commander. Now, Esler is deputy incident commander and Bonney is operations section chief, overseeing police, fire, EMS and public works as they respond to the pandemic, and working with church groups and other organizations that will have feet on the ground, doing logistical work. He also helped coordinate COVID-19 test sites.

“This is one of the most critical operations in this structure,” Massey said of Bonney’s position. “It’s a big plate.”

Massey oversees all operations and serves as a link between the center and the “policy group,” the city manager, mayor and council chairman. Massey and Esler meet with and update them on what’s happening and what goals they have set so the policy group may apprise the public, according to Massey.

Esler, the assistant incident commander, and Massey said they are working to ensure none of the city officials working in the center end up in quarantine, so their temperatures are checked twice a day and they are asked questions twice about whether they have symptoms and so forth.

“That’s really critical because we can’t afford to lose the people in this room,” Massey said.

The NIMS system is designed so that any member of the command center knows what the others are doing and can take over for any one of them, if needed.

“The biggest thing that really needs to be emphasized is we have an extremely talented group of people sitting in this room doing an amazing job for the city of Waterville,” Esler said.

 

WHAT THE PUBLIC NEEDS TO KNOW

Massey said he is grateful to residents for their patience, tolerance and understanding. He said a woman whose child had a respiratory illness but recovered offered the center unused masks for the effort.

Massey asked that people follow CDC guidelines to avoid crowds, wash hands and not flood emergency rooms.

People with symptoms should call their doctors who make provisions for visiting a testing site such as Northern Light Inland Hospital’s site in the parking lot of the Faith Evangelical Free Church on Kennedy Memorial Drive, according to Esler. Those visiting pharmacies to pick up prescriptions should call ahead so they do not have to wait in lines or congregate with other people, according to Esler.

Asked if the city has the equipment it needs to address the pandemic, Esler said it has what it needs right now.

“We don’t have the level of equipment we would like because systemwide, we’re seeing a shortage of personal protective equipment — masks, gowns,” he said. “We do have enough equipment in the short term to effectively respond to emergencies and handle those.”

He said the public can expect to see emergency responders going to regular house calls suited up and wearing protective eye gear, gloves, gowns and masks as a precaution to protect themselves and others.

Waterville Fire Chief Shawn Esler, right, assists a UPS driver delivering cases of protective gloves to the Waterville Fire Department on Monday. The firehouse is home to the new Emergency Operations Center. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

Asked if they have dealt with any people who have coronavirus, Esler said that is protected health care information that hospitals might release. Asked whether he and others are confident they are as prepared as they can be, he answered with caution.

“The people in this room are extremely confident in our capacity to deliver the essential services this community requires at this point, although we can’t predict what that might be next week because it’s changing every hour,” Esler said.

Esler noted that while operation center officials are doing a great job, they would not be able to function without city departments, including finance, human resources, parks and recreation, and public works.

“Every city department is dedicating resources and time to support our Emergency Operations Center,” he said.

The center operates 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week — and over the weekend if city leaders ask for that. Anyone with questions for center officials may contact them at [email protected]

Asked what sort of questions the public has posed so far, Esler said some people have asked about general guidance on what to do and best measures to take for families during the pandemic.

“We may put someone in touch with a pharmacy or hospital or testing facility or a possible mental health professional — somebody to talk to,” Esler said.

He encourages all businesses to log onto the Fire Department’s site on the city’s website, waterville-me.gov/fire, to update their contact information in case an emergency arises and they need to contact the department.

Meanwhile, Parks and Recreation Director Matt Skehan put together a list of about 50 volunteers ready to help as the need arises, according to Bonney. He said volunteers may be asked to do things such as go to the store for elderly people who can not leave their homes.

Massey said the public can expect to see officers dispatched to people’s homes only in emergencies, so as not to expose themselves or the public to the virus unnecessarily.

“We just ask people to understand, if they call the police department and ask for police services, that we’re really prioritizing them, and if they’re not an emergency, we will probably not send an officer and (instead) give them the best information we can over the phone,” he said.

Massey said he thinks the operations center is working well and efficiently.

“We just want to assure the public we’re doing everything we can to protect them,” he said.

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