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How One Vermont Town's Emergency Management Team Is Responding To The Pandemic

A person wearing a mask points to a large pad of paper with red marker writing on it.
Nina Keck
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VPR
Jan Sotirakis is the emergency management director for the town of Chittenden and heads up a team of volunteers in town helping locals through the coronavirus pandemic.

When Gov. Scott called a state of emergency in March, towns across Vermont responded locally to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Jan Sotirakis said Chittenden's emegency efforts began right away.

"We started on March 13th," Sotirakis said. "We declared a state of emergency here. And we opened the emergency operations center the next day.”

Sotirakis was part of Chittenden’s volunteer fire department when Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011.

“I’m a registered nurse — I've been a nurse for 45 years,” she said.  “I did not even know what emergency management was until Irene.”

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But Irene was a wake-up call that she said pushed her to become Chittenden’s emergency management director, or EMD. It’s an appointed position, and according to Sotirakis, there’s no pay. But the former public health nurse said she enjoys helping the town of 1,200 people prepare for the unexpected, which right now is COVID-19.

Sotirakis recently showed VPR a conference room in Chittenden's town hall where the select board usually meets, and in times of crisis, the emergency command team gathers. Now, however, it's empty, except for a folding table, an American flag and a large conference-sized pad of paper with a chain-of-command diagram Sotirakis had drawn out in red marker.

A sign for the Chittenden municipal offices and the emergency ops center phone number.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
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VPR
While the Chittenden Select Board room in town hall usually acts as the emergency command team meeting spot, the group has been meeting remotely.

Instead, Sotirakis and about a half dozen members of Chittenden’s emergency command team have been meeting by video conference every weekday. The group has assessed the town’s resources like food, cell service and high-speed internet, and they have also identified who of their neighbors might be vulnerable.

“We have a whole system for calls to be made to those people,” Sotirakis said. “Local pastors here are making some of the phone calls. The senior citizen group that had weekly luncheons already had a phone tree, so they're checking on each other. And then we have other people just calling people to say, 'Hey, we know you live alone. This is a scary time. Do you need anything?’”

They also put up informational lawn signs and posters around town. A blue one reminds anyone new to Vermont to self-quarantine for 14 days. Another particularly eye catching one shows how to stand a dairy cow's-length apart, a playful take on Vermont-style social distancing. 

That sign was so popular, Sotirakis said one or two disappeared the first night their group put them up.

A physical distancing sign using a cow as a demonstration of six feet.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
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VPR
Chittenden's emergency management team had informational signs made to remind locals about social distancing and quarantine regulations. This sign was so popular, a few went missing after they were first put up.

The emergency group has an active local Facebook page, where they answer questions and provide public health updates and tips on things like how to apply for unemployment benefits or health insurance.

By law, every town in Vermont needs to have an emergency management director, and they’re required to prepare a plan that shows how the town would deal with a crisis.

“I think it’s about filling in the gaps and making sure people don’t fall through the cracks,” said Jacob Powsner, a maple sugar producer and member of Chittenden’s school board. He's also a member of the town’s emergency command team and said the group includes volunteers with all sorts of expertise.

More From VPR: What Vermonters Need — And How You Can Help — In Response to COVID-19

While emergency declarations at the state and federal level are critical for funding and other assistance, Powsner said a strong local response is equally important.

“We know the people in our community the best, right? And we can get to those people the fastest,” he said. "If a business is struggling in Chittenden, what can we do to lift their sales temporarily? Or you know, if there’s a demographic in need, what can we do to address that need?”

A blue sign reading just arrived in vermont? please self-quarantine
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
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VPR
A sign erected by the Chittenden emergency management team.

Steffanie Bourque is the emergency management planner with the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, and she provides support on a county-wide level.

“My role is mainly to provide a platform for the local EMDs to connect with each other and share lessons learned, share challenges, share accomplishments," she said.

Bourque also helps filter information like federal emergency funding sources.

“Our remote roundtable that we had last night, I had probably different eight towns represented, from Tinmouth, which is a very small community, up to Rutland City," she said. "And I think everyone shared equally very strong examples of how their communities are coming together and what they’re doing to make sure that everybody gets through this as safely as possible.”

A white sign with words free wifi in p-lot
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
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VPR
A sign in front of Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden reminds passersby that there's free high speed internet available in the parking lot. It's another local resource for families who are now working and studying from home.

Back in Chittenden, Jacob Powsner said now that they’ve been able to address some of the immediate needs in their community, they’re looking at how to keep people in a healthy state of mind as the pandemic drags on. So they’re planning virtual events like open mic nights.

“We’re thinking about doing a trivia night, maybe a drive-in movie," he said. "We’ll see how things evolve and how much engagement we get with them."

It’s all about taking care of each other, he added, for as long as needed. 

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