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Tech school unsure it could host regional shelter

TURNERS FALLS — Plans to switch a regional emergency shelter from Turners Falls High School to the Franklin County Technical School raised concerns about the school’s capacity to host refugees and mixed communication between the school and regional planners.

A new regional emergency planning agreement on the table countywide includes the proposal to transfer the role from the Turners Falls High School building on Turnpike Road to the nearby Technical School on Industrial Boulevard, but tech school officials said last week this was news to them. They worried the school might not be equipped to handle an influx of displaced residents and said they can’t be obliged to do so.

The Franklin County Regional Shelter Plan was completed and a draft agreement sent to all Franklin County towns for consideration this spring. Many, including Montague, have already signed on. The plan is an addendum to the “Western Massachusetts Intergovernmental Emergency Mutual Aid Agreement,” which all Franklin towns have already signed.

The new plan includes a cost-sharing mechanism that makes a town’s share of the cost of running a shelter proportional to the number of residents it sends and divides the county into five regions based on rivers.

The Franklin County Regional Council of Governments developed the plan with input from the Franklin County Regional Emergency Planning Committee. Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council provides caches of equipment for the regional shelters. These would include such things as cots and blankets, sanitation supplies, wheelchairs or even generators.

The issue came up at last week’s meeting of the Franklin County Technical School Committee.

Committee members said some shower facilities are currently out of commission — used instead as storage space — emergency generators are old and space is tight.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to it; I just want people to be aware of what we have available,” said committee Chairman Richard Kuklewicz.

What the facility has includes a pair of 30-year-old emergency generators, Kuklewicz said, up to the task of running the building long enough to send the students home if the building loses power, but not necessarily reliable for sustained use during a power outage.

The committee formed a subcommittee to look at what the facility does and does not offer and to talk to planners.

Superintendent James Laverty said this week a letter he received in June from the Franklin Regional Council of Governments was the first indication he had the building was being considered as a shelter, and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

The letter said the COG has been working over the past couple of years on a new plan, held a summit in March 2012 to begin the process of identifying potential shelter options in Montague, and has identified the tech school as the primary shelter for the southeast sector of the county, the area bordered by the Connecticut and Millers rivers.

Several committee members said they objected to the tone of the letter and the lack of notice. The letter indicates the plan has been discussed with the Town of Montague, Laverty said, but the Franklin County Technical School is a separate governmental entity. The building belongs to the 19-town regional school district.

“Our primary function is the education of kids, and if we’re used as a shelter we can’t educate the kids and that has ramifications,” Laverty said.

Laverty said he has left a message with Patricia Smith, the COG’s senior land use planner, and hopes to arrange a meeting between her and the new committee.

Smith said use of the tech school is just a proposal, and the letter was meant as a request to start discussions between the school and towns. Smith said there is no entity that has the right to oblige the school district to open the facility as a shelter.

Smith said planners have been in contact with facility managers regarding each potential shelter.

Turners Falls Fire Chief and Montague Emergency Management Director Robert Escott Jr. was involved in the planning.

“Turners Falls High School had expressed interest in not being a shelter anymore, and that’s why we reached out to the tech school,” Escott said.

Under the current agreement between Greenfield and Montague, the two towns alternate as shelter hosts in emergency situations.

Escott said he had talked to the previous superintendent, who indicated interest, but he had not yet sat down with Laverty.

Laverty started in the district last summer.

Escott said the hope is to use the tech school gym if the school agrees. The tech school gym is on the ground floor and accessible without walking through the school, Escott said, making it possible to keep the student and resident populations separate and continue classes.

Because its gym is on the second floor, the Turners Falls High School’s cafeteria currently serves as a shelter when needed.

Gym classes and sports practices are more easily foregone than lunch, so it should be possible to use the tech school gym as a shelter without forcing the school to suspend classes, according to Escott.

You can reach Chris Curtis at:
ccurtis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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