In the event of an emergency in Portsmouth, who’s in charge?

Town sets chain of command during disasters

By Jim McGaw
Posted 1/14/20

PORTSMOUTH — In the event of a severe hurricane or massive amounts of flooding, the president of the Town Council has the authority to declare a local disaster emergency.

But what …

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In the event of an emergency in Portsmouth, who’s in charge?

Town sets chain of command during disasters


PORTSMOUTH — In the event of a severe hurricane or massive amounts of flooding, the president of the Town Council has the authority to declare a local disaster emergency.

But what happens if he or she, for whatever reason, is unable to perform that duty?

Following a brief public hearing Monday night, the Town Council approved an amendment to the town ordinance that sets a clear succession of authority if the council president is momentarily out of the picture. The amendment was requested by Raymond Perry, head of the town’s Emergency Management Agency, who said national standards require a distinct chain of command in order for the town be eligible for disaster funding.

Under the amendment, if the council president is unable to perform emergency management duties as chief executive officer, the succession for carrying out that duty is delegated as follows, in order: council vice president, town administrator, acting town administrator, and senior public safety official (fire or police).

The ordinance amendment didn’t come without some pushback from two local residents, however.

Larry Fitzmorris of the taxpayer group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens said according to the Town Charter, only Town Council members have the authority to declare local disasters. “We should not have the town administrator or any other administrators in this chain of command,” said Mr. Fitzmorris, noting it is important to keep those powers separate.

Another resident, Nancy Grieb, agreed, saying the matter came up before the Charter Review Committee, of which she’s a member. “To change it, we’d have to change the charter,” Ms. Grieb said, adding that she would not have a problem with that.

Council member Keith Hamilton, however said a declaration of an emergency is not spelled out in the current charter, which dates to 2016.

In any event, Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin said, this action doesn’t conflict with the charter because the council is simply clearing up language in the existing ordinance. Mr. Gavin added that he believed the council “has full authority” to delegate the chain of command.

The amendment passed in a 6-0 vote. Council member Leonard Katzman did not vote as he had left the meeting earlier due to illness.

911 funding

On a request by Town Administrator Richard Rainer, Jr., the council unanimously approved a resolution in support of more funding for E-911 statewide and municipal services. 

The resolution uses the same language in one already approved by the Charlestown Town Council, which says E-911’s mission to provide 24-hour emergency communication services is hampered by a shortfall of funding. Currently, funding comes from phone carriers that collect surcharges on individual phone bills

The state “has co-mingled in general revenue fees collected but not dedicated to E-911 services,” according to the resolution.

“Even with some of the best fire, rescue and ambulance corps in the state, the response times in rural areas may be 10 to 15 minutes — a response time that is a product of distance and antiquated equipment alone,” the resolution stated.

According to the resolution, E-911 has no GPS tracking for cell phones for voice and text messaging services, as well no emergency medical dispatch, which puts a trained nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant on the line to provide emergency medical instruction. The system is also not in Lin with mandated municipal equipment upgrades from surcharges and does not have a full range of services needed to communicate with all Rhode Islanders who may find themselves in highly stressed emergency crises, he said.

The resolution requests that the staffing, training, operations, equipment and technology for 911 emergency services be updated, and urges the governor to convene the E-911 Commission to address any inadequacies in the system.

The resolution will be forwarded to all town and city councils in Rhode Island in hopes they will also approve the document, as well as the governor and other state and grassroots agencies, requesting their support.

Event license granted

Sitting as the Board of License Commissioners, the council unanimously granted a Class F1 liquor license to the Island Park Preservation Society for a fund-raiser on Saturday, Feb. 15.

The benefit will be held from 4-10 p.m. at Thriving Tree Coffee House, 706 Park Ave.

Peddler licenses

The council approved peddler licenses so that the following food trucks can roll — or continue to roll — in Portsmouth:

• A Mano Pizza & Gelato, Newport

• Diegos Barrio Cantina, Middletown

• HG80, Providence

• GG’s Pretzels, Warren

• Pete’s Ice Cream, Portsmouth


The council accepted, with regret, the resignation of Ralph Craft from the Juvenile Hearing Board. Mr. Craft said he was leaving due to a personal conflict of interest.

The council appointed Nicholas A. Credle to the Portsmouth Economic Development Committee, the Portsmouth Housing Authority and the Sold Waste/Recycling Committee; Kenneth Jones to the Portsmouth Housing Authority; and David Belezarian to the Juvenile Hearing Board.

James Nott was re-appointed to the Zoning Board of Review. He has served on that board for more than 18 years.

Future meetings

The council will meet on the following Mondays at 7 p.m. at Town Hall: Jan. 27, Feb. 10 and Feb. 24.

The council also voted to approve Town Clerk Jennifer West’s request to change the dates of its April meetings to accommodate the Presidential Preference Primary Election, which will be held in the Town Council Chambers on April 28. The council will meet on April 6 and April 20, rather than April 13 and April 27.

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