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When disaster strikes, she's on the scene

Sue Rochester Bolen helps the Red Cross plan for the worst

Published 04/16/2013 12:00 AM

All is calm at the moment, but Sue Rochester Bolen is thinking about the next big storm or mass casualty incident from her desk at the regional headquarters of the American Red Cross in Waterford.

"I would say 90 percent of my job is preparedness and 10 percent is the actual response," says Bolen, the senior director of emergency services for Area 4 of the American Red Cross, which covers 44 communities east of the Connecticut River in Connecticut and Rhode Island, plus the Mashantucket and Mohegan Indian reservations.

A less grounded person could not function here, given the area's potential for so many types of disasters.

"It's not just the tropical events (like Hurricane Sandy) you're talking about," Bolen says. "There's winter storms and floods."

Tornadoes have been known to strike in the area, though they are, thus far, relatively rare. But then there's a whole array of potential manmade disasters to think about, with the region's highways, railroad, the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant, the Groton-New London Airport and two of the world's largest casinos. Not to mention the smaller, personal disasters, like house fires.

Planning, she says, is "a never-ending piece."

Bolen, who is 50, grew up in the emergency services and disaster response business. Her mother, Caroline Ladd, was the chairwoman of disaster services for the local chapter of the Red Cross for 28 years and continued to volunteer until she died in 2006. Her father, Richard Ladd, "more of a health and safety guy," worked at the US. Coast Guard Academy but also was involved with the Red Cross.

"The first time I started volunteering was my 9th birthday," she remembers. "My parents canceled the birthday party and took the cake and everything to Waterford High school for a hurricane."

At 16, she joined the Flanders Fire Department as a junior volunteer. She got her first paying job with the Red Cross in 1996.

Given her decades of experience, it seems fair to ask her if there have been more "events" lately than ever.

"We had several years where we didn't have anything, and for the last few years it was one thing after another," she said. "You don't recover from something until you're on to the next thing."

She was attending a Hurricane Sandy after-action meeting when the Sandy Hook massacre occurred on Dec. 14, 2012. She headed to Newtown to set up a Family Assistance Center. Three weeks after she closed that Newtown center, the February blizzard crippled the region.

She doesn't speculate about the upturn in the disaster business.

"I don't think there's a reason," she says. "It just is what it is. But it's hard when these storms are so big and so widespread."

Bolen and other area emergency managers have risen to the challenge. Beginning with Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, they have been opening regional shelters for those seeking refuge during storms.

"The entire state has been working at regionalizing shelters," she said. "We call them multijurisdictional shelters."

The shelters have operated in Groton and East Lyme.

"During Sandy, I walked into the East Lyme shelter and there was an Old Lyme Police Officer there," she said. "There was a Waterford animal control officer. Everybody brings something to the table."

Parked outside her office are nine trailers newly purchased by the region with Homeland Security funds. Each has 100 cots, 100 blankets, 100 blowup pillows and other equipment. The region also owns three special needs trailers with medical cots and other durable equipment. If a storm is predicted, trailers can be taken to a shelter, or "pre-staged," so that it is on sight when needed.

Shelters are becoming highly sophisticated, but are never as comfortable as home.

"I'm always saying, "It's an emergency. Everybody's doing the best they can,' '' she says. "It may not be the cruise ship. It may be the lifeboat. For the most part, everybody knows that."

Bolen is respected among her peers in the region. Retiring New London Fire Chief Ronald Samul said he could always count on Bolen or her volunteers to respond to fire scenes to offer assistance to victims, freeing up his staff to concentrate on the fires.

"One of the things she's excellent at is organizing people," Samul says. "She's a good problem solver and she can talk just about anybody into anything."

Groton-New London Airport manager Catherine L. Young has worked with Bolen for about 15 years, coordinating response to emergencies. The Red Cross is responsible for family, passenger and crew support in case of a plane crash or other emergency, and Young said she is confident that any emergency would be handled "expeditiously."

"I've had several different training activities over the last several years where I've needed her support and help, and she always makes herself available," Young says. "She always finds a way to make it happen. She has also asked us for some things and I would never hesitate to help her out."

East Lyme Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Director Dick Morris is another fan.

"Sue Rochester Bolen is coordinating a huge population in this county," he says. "She's got a lot of fires in the iron and keeps things going She carries a lot of authority in her job, and you never know it."

Bolen says she has always had an excellent support system. Her husband of 12 years, Fred Bolen, has become her "best volunteer," since retiring from emergency services at Mohegan Sun, she says. And it's no surprise that her three grown children also are involved with the Red Cross.

While Bolen has always known the value of lending help to those in need, she says it hit home when she had a house fire several years ago. Her son, Jeffrey, then 13, was burned in the fire, though not critically injured. It was, she says, an overwhelming experience, but it helped her hone the Red Cross response to such incidents.

"The thing I say to all my volunteers when they go out is, you're helping people and they've never been through something like this," she says.

Bolen, who is always accessible and accommodating to reporters, cannot end an interview without asking for help with recruiting volunteers. She has 216 registered and trained volunteers, but the need is endless.

"In a disaster, how many can step up?" she asks. "You've got to take care of your own house. You've got to take care of your family. One of the challenges is to increase that number."

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Become a volunteer

For information on volunteering, go to www.redcross.org/ct/volunteer and click on “Adult Volunteer Application” or “Youth (under 18) Application.”