An October hurricane and the recent December snowstorm have spurred a debate in Summerfield over the need for a Public Safety Committee. Some say a coordinated volunteer response effort opens the town up to liability concerns, while others argue that the town must have some plan in place when a severe storm hits or when there is another type of emergency.
The Summerfield Town Council met on Saturday, Dec. 15 and debated the topic and that discussion was continued on Facebook after the meeting.
Don Wendelken, a Summerfield resident and a former member of the Guilford County Board of Elections, said this week that the hurricane and the recent major snowfall that hit the town hard demonstrated how much Summerfield needs some sort of response mechanism. He said that he and other citizens are very concerned about the lack of planning in that regard.
Wendelken spoke on the topic at the Dec. 15 Summerfield Town Council meeting.
“My point here is this – you should have something so that you can reach out in an emergency like that that has just happened and also like the hurricane,” he said.
Wendelken said Duke Power and the Summerfield Fire Department do a good job, but he added that, during a major event, they can be overwhelmed. He also said that the town should assign certain responsibilities such as transporting and setting up the town’s emergency generator, and the town should also be directing volunteer groups needed to clear trees or perform other tasks that emergency responders are too busy to handle.
Wendelken said after the meeting that when the hurricane hit in October, there was so much that needed to be done that he took his chainsaw out and began clearing roads, but there was no coordinated effort.
Summerfield at one time had a Public Safety Committee that handled some of those functions, but the Town Council disbanded the committee years ago after a complex dispute over what water sources could be used for fire response.
Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham said at the meeting that the town’s former Public Safety Committee was “excellent” because it had a variety of members with a wide range of knowledge and a diverse set of skills.
Councilmember Dena Barnes said she thought the same goal might be achieved simply by getting a list of volunteers and turning it over to the fire department.
Councilmember Reece Walker said he does think the town has some responsibility in a crisis but he said there could be major liability issues with, say, calling citizens with chainsaws to action.
“Cutting a tree down in the road can be a dangerous task,” he said.
He added that the fire department has trained people as well as workers comp insurance.
“Running a chainsaw in dry weather is different than running it in ice and snow,” Walker said.
He said he’s seen what a chainsaw can do to someone and he added, “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
On the Town of Summerfield’s Facebook page after the meeting, the town’s response to the debate – presumably from Town Manager Scott Whitaker – stated: “This kind of issue is a great example of the struggle our community often faces regarding different expectations. We’re a small, limited-services, low-tax government, but often citizens really want more (public safety help in this case). Unlike most towns, we have no public works department, little equipment, and very few employees.”
The town’s Facebook post also expressed concerns over liability.
“Town volunteers are generally covered under the town’s insurance, so liability would be a concern if we sent out volunteers to do such work. The town monitors adverse weather and participates with Guilford County Emergency Management so that we’re aware of needs, report them, and request professional help from neighboring jurisdictions.”
Wendelken said later that he thought there were plenty of tasks that could be useful that didn’t involve chainsaws or were not particularly dangerous in other ways.