A state program to provide a small number of portable emergency generators has had varied usefulness here during the last three storms.
During Irene, the town received several new generators, used one, and almost used the others. During Alfred, generators were unavailable, and during Sandy, older clunkers were delivered but put to little or no use, officials said.
With the town acquiring and doling out the backup systems, the time it takes to obtain and the effort required to maintain the equipment limits its use to power medical application.
“The idea of having a few portable generators around for emergency use is just good planning. The problem is that some are unable to maintain them once they are in place,” Fire Chief Heather Burford said, referring to people who depend on medical equipment that requires electricity.
It takes a day or two, or more, for the town to obtain generators from the Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (DEMHS), and there’s no guarantee they’ll be available, so it’s not something people who have a life-and-death dependency on medical equipment can count on.
“In a circumstance where it’s needed, it needs to get there pretty quickly,” Chief Burford said.
In addition to uncertain availability, there are logistical problems with delivering potentially dangerous equipment to people with little or no experience running it and medical dependencies that may limit them physically.
“They more likely are not going to be able to maintain it,” she said.
A portable generator “has to be shut down, cooled off, refueled, started up again,” several times per day. “It has to be in a safe location” to prevent fires and carbon monoxide from entering the house.
“It’s not just a matter of driving up dumping off the generator with a five-gallon container of fuel and coming back in a week.”
Ultimately for people with serious medical needs, “you have to analyze: Is this person better off either going to our shelter or going to a special needs shelter” rather than sheltering in place with a generator, and possibly requiring volunteers to stop by frequently to take care of the devices.
There has not been a great demand for generators to power life-sustaining equipment, Chief Burford said, at least not generators provided by the state via the town. Some people have more robust standby generator systems, and other people may take advantage of the town shelter or the special needs shelter Danbury, she said.
There are other uses for the devices besides immediate medical emergencies.
During Irene, generators were available to power wells that Aquarion now has hooked up to backup generators but didn’t at the time, Chief Burford said. However, before they could be installed, power was restored to the area.
“During Sandy we did try to give one to a gentleman who owns a small public water company serving about 40 homes,” she said. “The homes were actually powered back up, but because of the location of the well pump, it was not supplied with power.”
However, in that case, the well owner did not end up using the generators.
Chief Burford said when the generators did come from the state, the devices varied greatly in condition.
“When Irene struck, we immediately ran into this situation where … the well pumps for part of Aquarions wells were not on generator. We said, why don’t we turn to the state?
“Although it took a while to get the generators … eventually these six beautiful five kW generators showed up in boxes — literally brand new.”
In the most recent storm, five older, diesel generators showed up. They were very heavy and had no wheels, Chief Burford said. To her knowledge they were not used.
The Fire Department does have some smaller generators that are suitable to power outdoor lights and that could be used in emergencies, but couldn’t power a substantial part of a person’s home.