AYER -- Communication is critical, especially for those who don't have smartphones in a storm. Jeannine Wheatley of Oakridge Drive told town officials Monday night that her street was hard hit by a prolonged power outage during Hurricane Sandy and that elderly neighbors were not being kept apprised of the situation.
Oakridge Drive in Ayer was partially closed for several days due to a massive fallen pine tree. Neighbors limped along without electricity.
"Sometimes all they have is a Verizon telephone or Comcast for telephone and cable. When that's out, they don't have any media," said Wheatley.
Wheatley was one of a couple dozen people on hand for a community meeting to discuss what went right and wrong in the aftermath of the Hurricane Sandy in late October.
Ayer Police Chief William Murray said he, Fire Chief Robert Pedrazzi, and Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand were already brainstorming on how to reach those outside the electronic envelope. Pedrazzi said in the December 2008 ice storm, by contrast, there was a door-to-door flyer effort.
"It was not as bad this time," said Pedrazzi, who added "it's hard to put out a flyer when you don't know how long the power's going to be out."
"That's a concern that we hear quite frequently," said National Grid's Director of Community & Customer Management Aleta Fazzone. National Grid uses radio broadcasts to "make sure that we're communicating with the public to say we're expecting a major event and it's almost certain that there's going to be power outages, so prepare for the chance you'll be without power."
Fazzone said the company encourages customers to have battery-operated radios to hear news broadcasts. Fazzone also appealed to the public to please call the company to report outages in their neighborhood because that's how the company determines the severity of the hit to the power grid and prioritizes it's response.
Another change that's developed for National Grid since both Hurricane Irene and the Halloween snow storm of 2011: "we're putting a lot of effort into pinpointing" outage areas to ensure the company has the supplies, manpower and other resources it needs before springing into action, said Janice Ramsey, National Grid's Forestry Supervisor.
For those who had charged smartphones, Scott Houde of Oakridge Drive noted that text messages sent by the Ayer Police Department were "invaluable" in terms of information on road closures without using up a lot of cellphone battery strength.
"Facebook absolutely sucks the battery out of my phone," said Houde.
Houde noted that Oakridge drive was hit hard over the last three significant storms though other areas of town had power. "But what if this was a major storm that took the town down?" pondered Houde. He suggested information be provided on a website with links to FEMA, MEMA and Reverse 911 messages "to parlay that information."
Houde suggested "looking at the holistic communication system, from soup to nuts, in the case of a much larger event."
Ayer IT Coordinator Cindy Knox said there was a lot of traffic on the town's official Facebook account during the storm, especially from residents of Oakridge and Douglas Drives. In the future, the town may take to Twitter, to tweet out updates in short information bursts.
The pre-storm to-do between town officials and, on a larger scale, for National Grid, mirrored one another -- fuel generators and trucks, test information networks, and track the forecast.
A pre-storm meeting was convened at the Ayer firehouse between the police, fire, DPW, selectmen and Pontbriand "just to make sure that we're on board with everything that's going on," said Pedrazzi, who is Ayer's emergency-management coordinator. "The town was as prepared as we could be."
Pedrazzi said he had cellphone access to National Grid community liaison Mike Horton, who was "very good and wrote down all the pole numbers where we could have a problem" in advance of the storm." Ultimately, Ayer "actually had very little damage," said Pedrazzi.
One snafu -- no one from Markham Circle ever called the Police or Fire department to report their power had been out for several hours. "We just never got a call on that," said Pedrazzi.
The DPW had emergency generators in place for water and wastewater operations. However, at the Spectacle Pond wellhead, the control system faltered despite the return of power, so all operations were switched to the Grove Pond wellhead for the town's water supply. "We have plenty of water at either one of them except on the hottest days in the summer," said DPW Superintendent Mark Wetzel.
Highway crews were out with chain saws, ready to clear debris from roads and catch basins. You may notice spraypainted marks in the middle of the road by storm drains so "when you have a big puddle, you can go out there and find it" when they're underwater.
With the Oakridge Drive tree, which fell from private property across power lines, "we obviously won't touch that," said Wetzel. "We'll have the power company out."
"We had to wait for National Grid to come," said Tree Warden Mark Dixon, who reported that he was out alongside the DPW helping clear downed trees during the storm.
National Grid Operations Manager Paul Sibley said the company began planning several days before the storm hit, including "reaching out to other utilities and states looking for other resources to staff up for the storm."
It's all hands on deck. "Vacations are cancelled -- everybody has to work," said Sibley. Daytime shifts account for 75 percent of the storm workforce, while 25 percent covers overnight duties. "Obviously we get more done during the daylight hours when you can actually see what you're doing."
"When the event hits, we go to work," said Sibley.
Eric Gemborys, National Grid's senior forestry supervisor, said they tried to enlist 800 private tree crews to help during the storm, but only half made themselves available. The first priority was "to make the situation safe as quickly as possible" regarding trees on wires. Compared to Ayer, neighboring Harvard "got hit a lot harder."
Bucket truck work halted during the storm. If federal worker safety requirements are to keep workers out of lifts in 30 mile per hour winds, they certainly weren't going up in the peak 50 to 60 mile per hour winds of Oct. 29, said Gemborys. "It's very hazardous."
After the storm, Gemborys said the company's routine tree trimming program was largely completed. However, Ramsey said the company always accepts calls from citizens who feel a tree, whether on a public or private property, may be a threat to a power line.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.