How does one define conundrum in New Jersey? Try "State of Emergency."
Freeholder Will Morey raised a question Feb. 13 at the board meeting about that subject. It was evoked after Director Gerald Thornton mentioned the county's new Code Red notification system. It's a system that every resident can sign up for on the county website. Signup for Code Red notifications is a red button posted on top of the first page of the Cape May County website for your convenience.
What it will do is notify your telephone of various emergencies straight from the "horse's mouth." I don't know about the tsunami, but it's there just in case.
What Morey wondered, as I have written here on several occasions, why does the public live in confusion when the governor or mayor or county OEM declare a state of emergency? There should be absolutely no question in anyone's mind what they should do, can do, and cannot do in such an emergency.
Morey had a point. In the course of the discussion, Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, who is retired from the Prosecutor's Office and who knows about "essential personnel" told a story. She said there were some county employees who were stopped on the Garden State Parkway by a state trooper during a state of emergency. They were told that they should not be on the road. Yes, but the badge doesn’t state, “Essential Personnel.” Such red tape in time of emergency, it’s unbelievable.
Asked about that, Thornton noted that every county worker is "essential," given that in an emergency, folks in the public information department were directed to man telephones in the Office of Emergency Management; housekeepers were similarly needed, especially in Crest Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, and Sheriff’s Officers delivered meals to homebound seniors.
Thornton also said the county declares a state of emergency only after consulting with the New Jersey State Police, Governor’s Office and Office of Homeland Security. Thus it’s not on a whim that such action is taken.
Regardless, there is a great deal of public ignorance about who can do what in a state of emergency.
Municipalities are free to declare their own states of emergency, Thornton noted. Recently, Wildwood had such a state when many streets were snow covered. That's the local prerogative, but who would know that?
Even if an evacuation is ordered, Thornton pointed to the fact that the government has no power to force an individual from his or her home. If they want to put themselves at risk, that's their choice, a freedom they have. However, when the water raises, public safety personnel cannot put themselves at risk to "save" those who earlier ignored a sensible warning to leave.
We know there are two New Jerseys, a north, and south.
A couple of weeks ago, when the northern part of the state was snowed under, state courts everywhere were ordered to open two hours late. In the southern part of our great state, there was no such danger, so every court worker, jurist, and litigant had to cool their heels for two hours awaiting the opening of the courts.
This is one of the problems with states of emergency. If we're in for an ounce, we're in for a pound.
The New Jersey Press Association is always Johnny on the spot when an emergency is declared to remind working journalists about the ability they have to move around.
Morey said there were people who, rightly, decided to stay at home when an emergency is declared but is that the law? It needs to be defined.
New Jersey clings tightly to its love of home rule. Schools are a perfect example. When the snow is predicted to fall in great amounts, why does it take every school district in the county to make a decision that schools will be closed, or open two hours late? Why is there no consensus that the county executive superintendent of schools, who acts as the local point person for the state Department of Education, can make "one call for all?"
If there is a state of emergency, can you risk your life to get a gallon of milk from the store, or are you committing a heinous crime by disregarding the "state of emergency?"
I would hope that Morey's question resonates with some officials and they come to an agreement just what the ordinary, law-abiding citizen is supposed to do in a state of emergency.
As wise men like to remind us, "This ain't rocket science."
Then again, this is New Jersey, what else would we expect?