Getting our city to openly assess and discuss its performance when searching for missing persons or reacting to a natural disaster remains a perplexing challenge. Hopefully the city’s “Engage Newport” outreach effort will yield a more transparent and collaborative environment between the city’s police and fire departments and the served citizens. Citizens continue to have unanswered questions concerning 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene and 2012’s search for resident Brenda Batts which now stands in sharp contrast to the many local, state, and federal agencies that searched over 600 square mile search for resident Teddy Oliviera.
ALN advisor Mike Cullen, also moderator of KnowingNewport and one of the founders of NewportReady, delivered the following comments to the Newport City Council at the start of their July 24th meeting.
“It’s been six months since the death of Newport resident Brenda Batts by hypothermia and drowning. I am following up on a city official’s February promise to the Newport Daily News that his department would review the matter and seek areas of improvement so we can boost the odds of finding the next wandering and missing Newporter or visitor alive, not dead. The public was disturbed by the outcome. I’m not here to point fingers. I’m here asking that we solve this vexing public safety challenge together and out in the open. I have studied police and fire records provided me through a records act request. If the strategic goal is to make Newport more livable, then quite literally we need to lower the odds that missing persons will be found dead. Here are some of the open questions:
• Going forward what will police and fire be doing to find an at-risk resident in a more prompt manner (Batts had already been missing 12 hours and Alzheimer’s patients have a 60% death rate if not found within 12 hours) ? What is preventing the city from mobilizing and making a rapid “all-hands-on-deck” search for a wandering person — whether the person suffers from dementia, ADD, or Down’s Syndrome?
• When looking for an at-risk person will the city continue to demand that at least three police officers conduct a search of a missing person’s residence as a condition for an aggressive search and/or the issuance of a Silver Alert? City documents state that that the victim’s son refused the demand of police to allow entry of three officers. But he was willing to allow one officer to conduct a search. The city’s documents suggest that the city’s search was suspended shortly after the son’s refusal but restarted in the early morning hours.
• Can the city help the public understand when leadership’s decision would use the national “A Child is Missing” dialing service? This is a free service that has been advertised on the police department web site for several years but it was not used in the Batts case.
• The issuance of the Silver Alert via the state police appeared to take four hours. Are their local or state process improvements that could be made to streamline the process?
• Ms Batts had a previous wandering episode that involved Newport police. The police also advertise the “Return Home Safe” program on its web site. Is this information readily made known to public safety supervisors so they have earlier information about reported wanderers?
• Newporters are used to seeing strange human behavior. Can the city help us understand why public safety leadership would expect the public to phone-in reports of strange behavior when the public has not been informally cued to be on the lookout for a missing, at-risk person. Why should the burden be on the public to “see something, say something”?
Again, I commend the council on its quest to make Newport the most livable city in New England. I commend the city for using the continuous improvement methodology in the public works department. But let’s expand its use and potential for public benefit into the city’s public safety arena. Again, I’m not interested in pointing fingers; this isn’t a police thing; it’s not a fire thing. I’m interested in seeing our public safety people and processes working closely together even when dealing with rare events such as missing persons and hurricanes. Please make it a personal priority to find a way to ventilate the issues that I’ve raised and to facilitate an open lessons learned process.
The city not yet responded to any of these questions and ignored requests by NewportReady during August to engage on an important hurricane planning opportunity. The city finally opened up a line of communication with the group following Newport Daily News coverage of the NewportReady’s planning exercise and then an editorial that roundly criticized city officials for shunning the efforts of organized volunteers. The city has provided the group with a copy of the city’s
emergency operations plan and has promised to review the group’s suggestions. Hopefully the “Engage Newport” project will yield a city government that is more open to probing and questioning by its citizens who are keen to raise the performance bar.