About a decade ago, as he watched utility trucks from out of state help fix widespread power outages in New Hampshire, a light went on for Bow, New Hampshire’s public works director, Chum Cleverly.
If power companies could get help from out of state, and police and fire departments could help their counterparts in neighboring communities, why couldn’t public works crews do the same? Cleverly’s idea soon grew into the Public Works Mutual Aid Program, which he and others involved believe is the first statewide program of its kind.
Started in 1998, the compact wasn’t used until last fall, when floods devastated Alstead and neighboring communities in southwestern New Hampshire. The system shone then and again in May, when the worst floods 70 years struck a wide area of southern New Hampshire. And just this month, member communities helped North Hampton when powerful storms dropped hundreds of trees in the town.
Now, states including Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have called for information as they consider setting up similar programs.
In both floods, with roads and bridges washed away, public works crews that normally would have helped neighboring towns were too busy at home, especially trying to find dump trucks to help fill huge washouts.
“Everybody was busy,” Walpole’s road agent, Jim Terrell, said of the October flooding. “I started getting offers from mutual aid and actually had more help available than I could take.”
Local contractors stepped up, but Terrell credits the system with getting roads back into shape quickly. Public works dump trucks rolled into town from miles away, including Derry, Enfield, Goffstown, Peterborough, Merrimack and Westmoreland.
“Considering it was October and winter could start at any time, it was really a rush to try to get things put back together,” Terrell said.
The tiny town of Washington had three major bridges washed out and nine roads closed in October, including one to the gravel pit the town normally uses. Cleverly sent several dump trucks, allowing Washington Road Agent Edward Thayer to quickly get gravel from other communities.
Without the help, “Oh, goodness, it would have taken days, several days,” to make the roads passable, Thayer said.
Cleverly has been on the receiving end, too. After sending trucks to Washington last fall, Washington sent help his way in May.
“It made a world of difference,” Cleverly said.
The Technology Transfer Center at the University of New Hampshire coordinates the program. The center’s education director, Kathy DesRoches, said 89 communities have signed up, many since the flooding. Before the storms, it was difficult to recruit communities for a program that had been on the books for years, but never used.
“But we all believed in it, and we all knew that eventually something would happen, and so that kept us all going out and trying to sell,” she said.
Joining costs $25 a year. Towns that send employees and equipment to other communities are covered by set rates and reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in declared emergencies. Their own insurance covers injury or damaged equipment.
A book lists members and available equipment that communities can request directly, through the center or a growing e-mail list.
The list wasn’t intended for emergency calls, but when Goffstown had 24 roads closed and washouts all over town in May, public works Director Carl Quiram had no time to figure out who had the equipment he needed and make calls.
“When all hell was breaking loose, I went to the (e-mail list) and said ‘I need ten-wheelers (dump trucks); who can send one?”’
At least seven communities and the state sent trucks and barricades to block closed roads.
More than dump trucks are involved. Goffstown sent specialized vacuum trucks to Keene when its wastewater treatment plant flooded last fall. Washington sent a specialized road roller to Walpole. Communities also can send inspectors to check out damaged buildings or clerical workers to handle phone calls or paperwork generated by emergencies.
In North Hampton this month, so many trees were blown over that there were no chippers available to rent, so Road Agent Robert Strout turned to the mutual aid system. Exeter and New Ipswich responded.
Quiram said private contractors help in emergencies, but hiring them in chaotic situations can cause problems.
“To enter into a wide-open contract and say ‘Go over and figure out what to do and do it,’ that’s risky,” he said.
By contrast, workers from other communities have similar training and day-to-day duties.
And there is a sense of pride in helping a counterpart.
“My truck drivers that I sent to Walpole — it totally pumped
them up to think that they had the professionalism to be able to go
somewhere and help somebody,” Quiram said.
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