Senator Baker Questions PEMA on Nuclear and Disaster Preparedness

In response to pointed questions from Senator Lisa Baker, the state’s top two emergency responders said they are continually training for nuclear, weather and pipeline disasters.

Glenn Cannon, the newly appointed Director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), assured the Senate Appropriations Committee that safety reviews are conducted annually at the state’s nine reactors and five nuclear power plants, and full-scale disaster training exercises involving local, county, state and federal first responders are performed every two years. A drill is planned for the Three Mile Island region on April 12, and an exercise was just conducted at Limerick Generating Station in Pottstown.

And just recently, in the wake of Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency, Cannon said the federal Environmental Protection Agency has increased its monitoring of drinking water and precipitation for potentially elevated radiation levels in the U.S.

Baker, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, also inquired about the preparedness of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians in the vicinity of the Marcellus Shale gas reserve. State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann said he is working with the Marcellus Shale Coalition –whose members have in-depth knowledge about the location and likelihood of possible risks– to train local first responders to respond to any emergency, with more than 2,700 first responders already trained.

In commenting upon the troubled statewide emergency communications system, Baker emphasized the importance of radios that allow police, fire, EMS, hospitals and all levels of government to communicate clearly and quickly with each other during an emergency. Baker also expressed her commitment to develop a stable funding source for 911 services that is “technology-neutral,” citing an ongoing Legislative Budget and Finance Committee study that should be completed by the end of this year. As telephone customers abandon their traditional landlines in favor of cell phones and the Internet, and as technology continues to evolve, the amount of money dedicated to county 911 systems–collected from a fee levied on landlines— erodes substantially.

Baker asked about the status of the state fusion center, a clearinghouse for information-gathering among multiple agencies involved in preventing, detecting and responding to criminal and terrorist activity. Cannon said he has a fusion plan, and is now moving to implement it.

Acknowledging Baker’s concern over numerous recent threats to public safety, Cannon repeatedly pledged to rebuild the Office of Homeland Security. Cannon emphasized that “homeland security” means more than just thwarting terrorist attacks in a major city. It involves “critical infrastructure,” and he expressed his commitment to renewing and expanding that focus.

Cannon also endorsed Baker’s newly drafted legislation to compile a registry of pipeline locations, and pointed to the many fires caused by unsuspecting contractors when they hit a gas line with a backhoe.

Baker asked for a summary of improvements made to avert another “Valentine’s Day snowstorm,” referring to the ice and snow event in 2007 that left hundreds of motorists stranded on Interstate 78 for close to 20 hours in a 50-miles-long traffic jam.

Cannon said the key is to prepare before disaster strikes. In anticipation of this year’s “Groundhog Day snowstorm,” for example, Cannon secured a disaster declaration from Gov. Tom Corbett in advance of the storm, enabling emergency crews and the National Guard to be on stand-by if needed.

Contact: Jennifer Wilson
(570) 675-3931