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MEMA Home > Programs> Communication> News > Words Travel Fast in Androscoggin County

Words Travel Fast in Androscoggin County


April 4, 2008


In Androscoggin County, when an emergency warning is received by community dispatchers, it is immediately acted on. That quick reaction, according to Joanne Potvin, director of the Androscoggin County Emergency Management Agency, is the result of a comprehensive training program designed to maximize communication.

“We saw a need many moons ago when I first came to work here,” said Potvin. “We saw a need to give our dispatchers some training on what to do when they get warning information,” she said.

The training she developed is called Warning Receipt and Dissemination Training. It offers new dispatchers guidance on how to handle emergency information, explaining where warning information comes from, what kinds of warnings are issued, and what to do when the dispatcher receives the warning material. “The training was developed 30 years ago,” Potvin said, “and we continue to do that type of training today.”

The training remained the same because the need has stayed constant. Prompt and easy access to information is critical to a community’s ability to respond to, and prepare for, an emergency. Potvin knew that to keep Androscoggin County safe through disasters, it was important that information was distributed accurately and efficiently.

Androscoggin County’s Sheriff’s Department dispatch center receives emergency information through the National Warning System. Alerts and warnings are issued for floods, hurricanes, winter storms, thunderstorms, and other hazards.

Now, dispatchers know how to respond. “When dispatchers get a warning message from their primary warning point, they do not say ‘what do I do with this?’” Potvin said. “They know to pull out the fan-out sheet, and start calls.”

“They go down their call list and give those people the same information they just received when they got the warning from us,” Potvin said. The groups called include municipal officials, police and fire personnel, school departments, public works, and water and sewer administrators. During the summer, the call lists expand. “Some of our smaller towns have a lot of campgrounds,” Potvin said. “So during the summertime, they notify them of severe thunderstorm warnings and other alerts.”

When Androscoggin County Emergency Management Agency receives a warning or alert, they notify the primary contact point in every municipality. From there, the information disseminates in a so-called ‘fan out.’

Although communications is a routine part of emergency response, it is a vitally important link. This winter, severe snowstorms in both Rhode Island and Wisconsin led to highway and transportation emergencies leaving commuters stranded on roadways for hours. In both cases, the emergency response suffered because of failures in communications.

By contrast, in Androscoggin County Potvin’s training paid off in February when the county braced for an ice storm. “We gave the towns time to prepare their trucks, put on the chains, and get their road crews ready,” Potvin said. “The further out from the storm we can get them warning information, the better prepared they are.”

When Potvin started working in Androscoggin County 35 years ago, emergency warning training was not in place. “Back in those days, a test of the National Warning System was called ‘checkerboard,’” she said. “But dispatchers did not know what to do when they received the ‘checkerboard’ – so we implemented a training program.”

Even as technology developed, the training stayed the same. “We’ve gone from using overhead transparency that we used to type by hand in our trainings, to using PowerPoint presentations,” Potvin said. “The information hasn’t changed, though why we do fan-outs has changed a little bit,” she said. “Back then we didn’t worry about hazardous materials and WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] so we have added those to the list of potential emergencies requiring fan-out.”

“Our program hasn’t changed in 30 years,” Potvin said, “and there is really no need to change it.”

Potvin has conducted the training personally for every new dispatcher hired in the county. “We’ve been doing it for so many years that it is like second nature,” she said. “Dispatchers don’t even think about it, it’s automatic.”

—Derek Mitchell



Androscoggin County EMA


Last update: 07/20/10