Commack School Officials Learn A Lesson From Sandy

Superintendent Donald James reviews where the district's emergency protocals could use improvement after Hurricane Sandy.


Commack school officials have had approximately three weeks to reflect on Hurricane Sandy, and they've made a few notes on how the district's response could be improved. 

Superintendent Donald James gave a presentation debriefing Commack School District's response to "Super-storm Sandy" and ways to improve for the future at the Board of Education's Nov. 15 meeting.  

"We have just come through several of the most difficult weeks that Commack, Long Island and the greater Northeast has ever experienced," James said. 

Commack schools were closed for 8 days to ensure the district's No. 1 priority - the safety of students and staff. There were no reported injuries and no damage to district facilities. One of the marble benches to Commack High School's 9/11 memorial was broken, but will be replaced. 

During the storm, the hardest challenge Commack school officials faced was finding a way to stay in communication with each other and school district residents. 

Commack School District has a six-step "Established Protocol for Communication with Staff, School Community, and Community At-Large" in place. During Sandy, James said the district reached the last and final step 6. 

"Step 6 consisted of me in my car with a scratch pad, talking on my phone with Ms. [Laura] Neuman, and writing down notes. You can see the water marks on my pad," the superintendent said. 

Power outages were so extensive through Commack that the district's buildings were without electricity, no Internet or telephone lines. James and Commack's Board of Education members stayed in touch through hundreds of text message. There were 15 text messages and 15 emails sent to local residents between Oct. 29 and Nov. 14. 

James said he realized the importance of these comunications while standing in line to get gas for his generator, and a man waiting with him recognized his voice from the district's robo-dialer.

"He ask me, 'Where are you making your phone calls from? You sound like you are calling from a warm, calm office?'," James said. "The face we some calmness is important to people. We want to be what the town doesn't necessarily have if you don' t have a main street." 

The power outages initially shut down the district's website and email server, which were quickly brought back online. Throughout the storm, the district homepages were easily accessed through the district's new mobile website. 

"We will be using that to make announcements if you can't get onto our regular website. You'll need to access this one when we have power outages," James aid. 

After Hurricane Irene in 2011, Commack schools installed a back-up generator at Hubbs Administrative center to have energy to power a command center, the website server, telephone systems and email server. 

The superintendent said Hurricane Sandy has showed school officials that the district's Emergency Command Center, powered by that generator, needs to reconfigured. Area departments that need to be added include communication personnel, transportation personnel given the busing issues, financial personnel, facilities personnel, administrative offices and the information technology department for the website. 

James said the district also realized it will need to improve its School Messenger system used for sending automated emails and robo-calls with urgent messages. 

"We have to improve reliablity of data in the system. Not everyone signs up and puts all their information in the system - home phones, cell phone and email. There are plenty of people who don't," he said. 

The district will be sending home a mailing to all district residents asking them to make sure they are signed up for the system and to update existing information so text messages or emails will reach them. 

"I don't know if Sandy's our new normal, but things like this happen - the blackout, Irene, Sandy and the nor`easter. Things will happen and if we are not prepared, shame on us," James said. 

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pbug56 November 20, 2012 at 06:10 PM
Mr James also needs to know that every time something comes up we don't each need several robocalls, emails and texts. If 2 in a given household are signed up, the phone just keeps ringing off the hook when the robocalls go out to cell phones, house phones, plus texts, plus emails, plus emails with a recording of the phone calls.
Concerned Comamck Citizen November 20, 2012 at 09:02 PM
At least you had power to receive all of those messages. Thos of us with Cablevision had no power for our cekll phones, no house phones, minimal texts, no Internet (no emails) and no message machine to record the calls. By the way, how does one get emails with a recording of the phone calls?
pbug56 November 20, 2012 at 09:20 PM
We did part of the time. No power for 8 days except for a generator we ran a few hours a day. That gave us cablevision access, fortunately. Plus my smart phone. As to the messages, CUFSD now sends out emails that contain only a link to a voice message (a royal pain) instead of just providing the needed info. I tend to delete them as soon as I get them since I've heard them at least a couple times already.
ENptfamily November 20, 2012 at 10:18 PM
Dr. James made some excellent decisions during an extraordinarily tough and unusual situation. Also, we were able to get all of his communications by going to WiFi hot spots during our 12-day power outage.
Gigi November 22, 2012 at 12:55 PM
The link to the voice message email / text was really annoying. If you're sending a text just text the info..not a link to it!
maureen veprek November 23, 2012 at 04:25 AM
Dr. James' efforts were superb! In a community, which has no central government, the disadvantage of 2 main townships not coordinating efforts, manifested by the Town Line Rd. tree problem, controlling the entire road. At least 5 days of confusing traffic patterns, an unorganized mess, and no one proposed any solutions! Commack needs to get organized w/a master plan from 1 development to the next with emergency volunteers, a visual alert system, & a proactive response to a major crisis. Again, applause for Dr. James!
pbug56 November 23, 2012 at 04:39 AM
You think Mr. James did any of the work other then using his voice for recordings? Oh, and just curious, what is your job with the district? I'm guessing PR director for the super.
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