Graduate students develop emergency management plan for Cheltenham Township
Community and Regional Planning graduate students (from left to right) Dennis Dalbey, David Major (seated), Chris Wierzbicki, Rachel Wentworth, Wesley Ratko, and Shane Godhsall review an emergency management plan for Cheltenham Township with instructor Susan Spinella, Assistant Director of the Center for Sustainable Communities.
Cheltenham Township has the distinction of being one of the closest suburban communities to Philadelphia. In the event of an emergency involving the city, Cheltenham would play a significant role in emergency management.
With such a key role to play, students in the Community and Regional Planning 501: Planning Studio have taken the semester to develop a Shelter-in-Place/Evacuation Manual to supplement the township’s emergency management plan.
“At the start of the semester, Hurricane Katrina took place and we all witnessed the resulting chaos as people tried to evacuate New Orleans. As the semester progressed, the students have been talking a great deal about emergency management planning — evacuation was a topic that we kept coming back to,” said Susan Spinella, Assistant Director of the Center for Sustainable Communities who is teaching the graduate studio course. “We decided that developing or enhancing some type of evacuation plan with a local municipality would be an excellent project and Cheltenham was a unique choice. The township does have an evacuation plan; the idea was that the students might be able to enhance it, think outside of the box and come up with some new ideas.”
According to Kenneth Hellendall, Emergency Management Coordinator for Cheltenham Township, Temple University Ambler’s “offer to assist with our plan was a windfall for the team.”
“Our team has no full time personnel; we all fill other roles within the Township. We would have eventually worked on sheltering plans but with the assistance of the Temple students, our sheltering plans are complete ‘sooner rather than later,’” he said. “We are progressive in our a ability to plan for any emergency that may strike Cheltenham. While one can never plan for everything it is our job and responsibility to plan as many scenarios as possible.”
The fall Community and Regional Planning studio at Ambler consists of six senior graduate students who are managing the Cheltenham emergency management project from the initial conceptualization through the final reporting, with a view toward project implementation.
“Each student has different interests within the planning field and they are relying on their individual strengths to complete the research project. Cheltenham is essentially the client for this project,” Spinella said. “The students needed to first evaluate what might prompt an evacuation in Cheltenham and the region. In this particular region, it might be more feasible that a disaster would prompt an order to ‘shelter-in-place,’ or stay where you are in the event of an emergency.”
The students were tasked with completing a demographic analysis of Cheltenham Township; identifying hazards — both natural and manmade — that may affect Cheltenham; defining the main evacuation corridors; determining the transportation needs of township residents should an evacuation be mandated; creating an evacuation plan for different disaster scenarios; and providing an in-depth report on evacuation and shelter-in-place best management practices.
According to student Wesley Ratko, of Jenkintown, a great deal of brainstorming goes into developing an emergency evacuation plan. Ratko is currently a GIS specialist with the Center for Sustainable Communities.
“It’s an exercise in collaboration; getting a sense of the needs of the township and building the final report. You need to make sure that everyone knows what you are talking about; that everyone from the first responders to the municipal officials has an understanding of the material,” he said. “My thesis is about the use of intelligent transportation systems, which directly relates to this project. How can we enhance the efficiency of our transportation systems to ensure that there never are five-mile back-ups in the event of a disaster; that there are alternative routes so that people aren’t running out gas while they are trapped in traffic; so that we can minimize the loss of life.”
For the Cheltenham project, the students have developed a comprehensive “All Hazards Evacuation/Shelter-in-Place Manual” for the township in addition to template brochures that may be made available to municipal residents detailing shelter-in-place and evacuation procedures. The brochures provide detailed instructions on how residents should respond should an order for evacuation or an order to shelter-in-place should be given.
“One of the most important things that the students discovered was that often municipal evacuation plans are not readily available to the public,” Spinella said. “Communication is essential. It may even be the most important aspect of emergency planning.”
Rachel Wentworth, a student who currently works for the Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia, helped oversee the development of the public information brochures.
“I was able to look at what the best management practices for evacuation and shelter-in-place were and what information needed to get out to the public. For example one of the issues that came out of Hurricane Katrina was what to do with your pets in the event of a disaster — don’t leave them in the house,” she said. “We were able to develop basic information brochures. It is imperative to do what you are instructed to during a disaster — if you are told to shelter-in-place, you do it.”
The brochures clearly and concisely spell out what to do in the event of an emergency.
In the event of an evacuation order — which may result from severe storms or flooding, prolonged loss of utilities, and certain types of chemical or radiological accidents — residents should turn off water and electricity in their homes; follow specified evacuation routes; do not attempt to walk or drive through flood waters; use the phone only if you need to report a life-threatening condition; and bring along an “emergency supply kit.”
An Emergency Supply Kit should include items such as a first aid kit, a battery powered radio, a flashlight and extra batteries; a three to five day supply of bottled water and non-perishable food; extra clothing; photocopies of important identification cards, including credit cards, bank accounts, insurance information, and prescriptions; and a list of emergency telephone numbers.
Should sheltering-in-place — often resulting from emergencies involving the release of chemical, biological, or radiological materials — be required, close and local all exterior doors and windows and close the fireplace damper; turn off all vents, fans, air conditioners, or heating systems that circulate air; and make sure you have access to a radio or television for additional instructions. If your children are in school do not attempt to pick them up — the district will activate their own emergency plan.
Wentworth said the hands-on, real world approach to the planning project was helpful in expanding her own work experience.
“My current job is not project based,” she said. “It was a good all around experience and great to work on a project with a tangible outcome.”
Spinella said the students’ work will be presented to the Cheltenham Township Emergency Management team for potential implementation.
“Emergency management is relatively new to our Community and Regional Planning program but it incorporates so many aspects of planning — transportation planning, environmental planning, business continuity plans, social and economic issues. It revealed a new aspect of the planning field to the students,” she said. “The manual they’ve developed will also be shared with the Montgomery County Department of Public Safety. Hopefully this will allow other municipalities to benefit from the research that has been conducted here.”