The Central Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee consists of representatives from an array of organizations including police, fire, Berkshire Medical Center and ambulance services.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — When Hurricane Irene hit the Northern Berkshires, faith organizations wanted to help but were not prepared.
In a short time, they pulled together and provided emergency services. Now a dozen churches in the county are teaming up with the Berkshire County Boards of Health Association to be prepared to offer up their facilities as rest centers during emergency situations.
"We saw the need for something in between an overnight shelter," project coordinator Vivian Orlowski said. "This will relieve the pressure on the shelters."
The association surveyed churches in the county and 11 have joined the effort. On Wednesday, Orlowski approached the Central Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee to start coordination with emergency managers in various towns.
This will provide emergency planners with other areas to send individuals who need such things as emergency heating or cooling centers during extreme temperatures.
"This gives them a place to stay during the day," Orlowski said, adding that while not all the buildings will serve every need, the places can at least offer referrals, a source of reassurance and basic facilities such as bathrooms.
In Pittsfield, there are always questions about temporary shelters and typically the Ralph Froio Senior Center is the go-to place during those occasions. However, there is daily programming at the center so the addition of children and other residents can cause a nuisance, so local religious organizations can help fill that need.
"I think this is going to fill a nice niche," Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski said. "Having five possible locations in Pittsfield certainly offers more opportunities. ... I am all for this. This would take the load off of the senior center."
So far, eight organizations in the central part of the county — five in Pittsfield and ones in Lee, Lenox and Dalton — have agreed to at least move forward with the process. Three others in South County have also joined on.
Similar efforts have occurred in New York and are now happening in Western Mass.
RSVP (Retired Senior Volunter Program) is launching a separate initiative to identify homebound people and get them five days' worth of supplies in case of a crisis. RSVP Director Sheila Pia asked for the planning committee's support for that project.
"We are finding there are a lot of people who are alone and don't ask for help," Pia said.
RSVP's 400 or so volunteers will begin reaching out to service organizations to create a database of those who are homebound and will later collect basic necessities such as non-perishable foods, radios and flashlights to put together emergency kits for those people.
Exactly what will be in the kits and how the database will be updated is still a work in progress but Pia hopes to have it all completed by the end of the fiscal year.
"There are so many ways to go but if we can get this rolling, that would be great," she said.