Chemical safety becomes focus of neighborhood watch

In January, July and September of 1996, this area experienced damaging floods, the memories of which haven’t drained away in the 18 years since.

So it might be surprising that when emergency management planners in Blair County put together their first federally mandated hazard vulnerability assessment last year, they chose chemical releases as the No. 1 risk.

On Tuesday, at this year’s first Blair County-wide neighborhood watch meeting, guest speaker Dan Boyles, county emergency management director, showed why with maps depicting the 77 hazardous chemical sites with radius rings that show the extent of the risk for the most dangerous substance at each site.

The City of Altoona’s map looked like the path traced by an Olympic figure skater’s long program.

Then there are the 164,000 chemicals that pass through the county by rail or roadway every year.

The county has been lucky, but there have been close calls, contained by the companies where they occurred and first responders, according to Boyles.

His hope Tuesday in speaking to those interested in the neighborhood watch program is to entice more people to join the county’s Community Emergency Response Teams – 150 have taken the free 20-hour course, and about 20 percent of those participate – and to help link the

CERT program to neighborhood watch.

“Neighbors helping neighbors,” said Mike Wall, operation and training officer for the Blair County Emergency Management Agency of the CERT program.

They are especially valuable in neighborhoods hit by disaster, where regular first responses are disrupted.

As part of a nationwide program, they learn disaster preparation, fire safety, team organization, light search and rescue and disaster medical operations, according to Wall and a Federal Emergency Management Agency website.

In the case of a chemical spill, CERT members could ensure that people living in affected areas are – if it’s appropriate – sheltering in place properly, sealing their doors and windows, turning off their furnaces or air conditioning to prevent circulating noxious fumes and going high in the house, to stay as far away as possible from the low-lying fumes, according to Boyles.

Boyles would like to train 500 Blair Countians as CERT team members.

It may be mutually beneficial to link the program to neighborhood watch because those who are community-minded enough to be interested in one program may also be interested in the other, Boyles said.

The quarterly meetings – each with a special topic, like Tuesday’s emergency preparedness – have been taking place for a few years, according to Blair County Sheriff Mitch Cooper, whose office sponsors neighborhood watch, along with Operation Our Town, the state Attorney General’s office, the Blair county District Attorney’s office and local police departments.

They help sustain general interest in neighborhood watch, a program that usually intensifies in particular neighborhoods when crime increases, then subsides in those neighborhoods when crime dies down, said Cooper, who worked to reactivate neighborhood watch as a member of the Altoona Police Department in 2000.

Rabbi Yossi Stein of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center and jewishaltoona

.com attended the meeting in hopes of making a better connection with the community.

If something happens, he wants his own community to “help and be helped.”

“In relationships, you’ve got to give and take,” he said.

Emergency preparedness can have deep ramifications for a community, according to Boyles, who spoke of the consequences of unpreparedness when a disaster occurs.

Those include loss of the means of livelihood for many, stress and thwarted potential.

Disasters increase the “livability deficit,” making it hard for people to fulfill their promise as human beings, according to Boyles.

Better “pre-mitigation” than “post-mitigation,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.