- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2012

National Weather Service officials are predicting savage weather conditions for the next 72 hours, warning residents to stay home to avoid blistering winds and heavy rainfall.

But Capt. William Bennett of the Falls Church Volunteer Fire Department is putting on another pot of coffee.

“When somebody calls, we respond,” the Station 6 captain said. “It doesn’t matter how much snow or rain. When it’s time to go to work, you do what’s necessary.”

Capt. Bennett is one of thousands of emergency crew members and essential personnel who will largely be ignoring safety warnings for this week’s “Frankenstorm,” a joking name for a serious mix of storm fronts that are expected to cause upwards of $1 billion in damages. The predictions are so dire, there have been cancellations of thousands of flights and train and bus trips, and the New York City subway system was shut down before the first drops of rain.

Despite the strong possibility for unsafe conditions, these firefighters, maintenance workers, utility crews and other necessary employees area are expected to head to work on Monday — if they are not already at their posts — to help make sure the millions of people who are not working remain safe and that life can return to normal when the skies clear.

“We’re in for the long haul,” Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck said. “You will see our crews out there.”

The impending storm “is a statewide event,” Mr. Buck said, and crews are scheduled to be out on state roads monitoring flooded areas, downed trees and traffic.

A high-wind warning is in effect through 8 p.m. Tuesday, with temperatures in the low 50s, said National Weather Service science and operations officer Steve Zubrick.

A coastal flood watch from late Monday night through Tuesday evening is also likely, he said.

The forecast, Mr. Zubrick said, “all kind of depends on how quickly and just where the remnants” of Hurricane Sandy land.

The highway administration’s Mr. Buck said road crews will be deployed in large dump trucks to areas closed because of high water, though they stay on higher ground to ensure their own safety.

“Our maintenance folks know better than anybody the roads that are more prone to flooding,” he added.

High water is a problem, but for many of the rescue and emergency crews, strong winds could prove to be their weakness.

D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Kenneth Ellerbe said it is often impossible to take his agency’s vehicles onto the street when winds exceed 40 mph. The precaution applies to all units — particularly ambulances, because of their boxy and hollow structure.

“It may delay our responses to emergencies,” Chief Ellerbe said.

Capt. Bennett said that normally his ladder trucks are also not allowed out in high winds above 35 mph to avoid the risk of toppling over.

Though it’s on a case-by-case basis, when calls come in during a significant weather event, the fire company will often send out a smaller truck or SUV to handle the call, saving the engine and ladder trucks for major emergencies.

“A couple years ago with the snowstorm, we were up all night long,” Capt. Bennett said. “We were tying up engines and ladders going out for areas that had no power or wires down, and there was nothing we could do about it. We were getting stuck, knocking down wires. We were creating as much of a hassle trying to get to other things.”

Assistant D.C. Police Chief Lamar Greene said his officers would be out “as long as humanly possible,” but if winds top 50 mph, the department typically issues an order to “shelter in place” on their beats.

“That’s probably what we’re going to do if this storm reached that point,” he said.

Sustained winds from the storm may delay Pepco’s ability to hit the streets until Wednesday.

“At winds of 35, 45 miles per hour, it’s an unsafe condition for our crews,” region President Thomas N. Graham said. “During those high-wind periods, our crews can’t do restoration. So if that condition exists, you’re not going to see our trucks out immediately.”

The electric utility that serves the District and surrounding counties in Maryland requested 3,700 additional crew members. So far, 1,473 are “on their way” from Southern states that will be less affected by the storm, Mr. Graham said. The additional crews will meet up with local crews at a staging area in Montgomery County and stay in local hotels during their stay.

Despite the worry about weather conditions, Pamela Baker-Masson, spokeswoman for the National Zoo, said the zoo has a set of protocols for bad weather. Because the zoo runs on a 24/7 work schedule, “we’re pretty well-practiced and well-rehearsed” for unique situations.

“We simply secure the animals, and the animals who have access to indoors and outdoors will probably be kept inside this evening,” Ms. Baker-Masson said. “We have plenty of food and water. We always have staff on our property … and in case we lose power, the generators come on for us.”

Another round-the-clock agency ready to handle the storm is the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.

“The core of what we are able to do at all times is run our facilities,” said George Hawkins, general manager of the authority. “The pump stations have to keep going; our treatment facilities have to keep going. So our essential personnel come in, no matter what kind of storm is going on.”

The agency keeps food stockpiled at those facilities, particularly its massive Blue Plains advanced wastewater treatment plant, so personnel can shelter on site as needed.

A man who answered the phone at the headquarters of the U.S. Postal Service — with a motto that boasts no weather is too awful to stop the mail — said carriers would likely be out on Monday, but that was dependent on when the storm strikes.

“Sometimes it can get conflicted. It’ll be a normal workday [for carriers], but they’re looking at the TV, and the governor says they’re closing the state down. It can get a little hairy.”

Postal Service spokesman George Maffet Jr. later clarified that depending on the weather, some post office lobbies could be temporarily closed and mail delivery and collection could also be suspended.

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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