Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Watching, not waiting — Neighborhood bands together to form watch program

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

When Amorette Payment decided to organize a neighborhood watch in her subdivision, her experience as a Red Cross volunteer and Community Emergency Response Team trainee prepared her to put some thought into the unthinkable.

What if an earthquake knocks out the Kenai River bridges in Kenai and Soldotna, and residents of the Westbrook Subdivision, off West Poppy Lane from Kalifornsky Beach Road, have to fend for themselves? What if a forest fire breaks out in the area? What if a crime wave develops in the neighborhood?

At the same time, Payment’s experience as a mom and Alaskan got her thinking about more mundane, but likely to happen, reasons for starting a watch, like warning people about an aggressive moose in the neighborhood, having a system for neighbors to keep an eye on each others’ homes when they’re out of town, or establishing safe houses for kids to go to if they need to escape a bully, get away from a scary dog or if they have an emergency at home.

“It’s better to prevent crime before it becomes a problem than try to catch up with it after it’s already plaguing the neighborhood,” Payment said. “And anytime you have a group of citizens agreeing and with a common goal and purpose and for a common good, that’s really powerful. Neighbors working together have a tremendous amount of strength, whether for preventing crime, keeping kids safe or being prepared for natural disasters. And if you can combine those, you’ve really covered your bases well.”

The neighborhood had a few break-ins last winter, which started Payment thinking about a neighborhood watch. In asking around about it, she found there wasn’t an existing program in place the neighborhood could join, so they’d have to create their own. The Kenai Police Department pointed her to a Web site, www.klaaskids.org, which has a downloadable manual for getting started.

There are 55 homes in Westbrook. Thirty-five participate in the watch program. Payment is the coordinator, and one family from each street serves as block captain, which entailed the adults in the home submitting to background checks. Each block captain keeps information about the families on the street, like contact numbers, serious allergies or medical conditions, and who could be useful in an emergency, whether they’re a plumber or EMT, or have a generator in the garage.

Payment maintains all the records for the participating families and set up a phone tree. If someone sees a suspicious car or there’s a bear in the area, a neighbor can call his or her block captain, who then calls Payment, who activates the phone tree.
“Each person has to make one phone call and the whole neighborhood will know if there’s a problem,” Payment said.

Since February, they haven’t activated the full phone tree, but they have mobilized neighbors to respond to a few situations, including an aggressive moose and missing children.

“Once a couple of kids wandered out of their backyard, so we were on it. We had people looking for them right away and were able to locate them,” Payment said.
Even if the emergency aspect of the system is never used, the program still makes a difference in the neighborhood.

“When someone goes out of town, if they call their block captain, they can keep a closer eye on the house. And we’ve had a lot of that, just more communication between the neighbors, which has been really helpful,” Payment said.

Payment and another neighbor went door to door handing out information and asking for donations to buy neighborhood watch signs and decals. They raised $400 and celebrated the installation of the signs with a neighborhoodwide block party Sept. 21.

The party was a way to disseminate information about the watch program, and Payment figured it’d be a good way to spread information about emergency preparedness, as well, especially since September was Natural Disaster Preparedness Month. She invited representatives from Central Emergency Services, Firewise, Alaska State Troopers and the Office of Emergency Management to talk to residents about making their homes, families and neighborhood safer from disasters.

“All of those people were marvelous. They came on their days off, and that was really gracious of them,” Payment said. “We really appreciate it, and they brought the fire truck and the kids loved it.”

Gary Hale, fire marshal with Central Emergency Services, said he appreciates the neighborhood’s motivation and organization in creating the watch program.

“I was very impressed. One, with taking the initiative in that neighborhood, and someone taking the reins and working with OEM about, ‘What do I need to do?’” he said. “And having the resources and gathering all these people, getting 35 out of 55 homes to participate in this activity and make the attempt to come to this — and they had it on a very nice day — was very positive. I was very impressed with the attendance and what they had done up to that point.”

In an emergency, the common assumption is a firetruck, ambulance or police car will come screaming to the rescue in a matter of moments. That’s the goal, but the reality is it may not always happen like that, Hale said.

In Westbrook, for instance, if an earthquake knocked out the Kenai River bridges — and there are 24,000 earthquakes in Alaska a year — CES in Soldotna or the Kenai Fire Department couldn’t get there. The CES stations in Funny River, Kasilof or the one six miles up K-Beach that could send help are only staffed with one person. Even if the bridges were intact, in the event of a major disaster, CES’ first priority would be to Central Peninsula Hospital and fighting fires, then branching out to help residents.

“The availability of manpower and equipment to come to your area may be a low priority,” Hale said. “A lot of people figure in an event that’s going to happen, police and Alaska State Troopers and the fire department are going to show up. What they don’t understand is in a huge disaster, we’re going to have priorities here making sure we can get our equipment out of the station first.”

Hale added: “If something does happen, I happen to feel they’re going to be one of the few areas that are going to be able to bring it together and help one another.”

Payment said that was point of the watch program — to be ready, whether it’s for an earthquake or other major disaster, or a little one, like plants needing to be watered.

“I am really pleased with it. We have a great neighborhood. We have always looked out for our neighbors, but now we have license to do that. It has a sense of purpose. I do think it has probably made our neighborhood safer, although admittedly our crime rate was low, but we want to keep it that way.”

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