Appointed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, new leader of Oswego County Emergency Management Office dives right in
By Lou Sorendo
Cathleen Palmitesso has experience when it comes to solving issues in a decisive manner.
As a celebrated member of the SUNY Oswego women’s volleyball team, she compiled 537 kills in her career that rank her among the top 10 in that statistic in school history.
A kill is an offensive attack that is un-returnable by the opponent and scores a point or earns a side out for the receiving team.
An Oswego native, Palmitesso starred for the SUNY Oswego volleyball team and is a member of the school’s Hall of Fame Class of 2016.
The ’94 grad was the first volleyball player ever selected to the Hall of Fame at SUNY Oswego.
Professionally, Palmitesso is now looking to quickly dispatch of another opponent: any manmade or natural disaster threat that may imperil Oswego County residents.
Palmitesso was recently named director of the Oswego County Emergency Management Office (EMO) in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She previously served as a radiological specialist with EMO, having joined in 2016. Prior to that, she worked at the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant (JAF) in Scriba, leaving its emergency-planning department to join the county’s EMO.
Despite the specter of COVID-19, she didn’t blink while diving headfirst into her new position.
“We have a very knowledgeable and dedicated emergency management staff that has made the transition seamless,” she said. “With the past experience as a radiological specialist and having a good working relationship with many agencies, there is tremendous support available.
“The county, city, town and state agencies have been great in supporting a team-like approach to the emergency and I can’t thank them enough,” she added.
The EMO has distributed more than 70,000 pieces of personal protective equipment and works with the Oswego County COVID-19 Emergency Response Team to address issues across Oswego County.
The health department’s COVID-19 hotline recently hit a milestone with more than 3,000 calls.
Oswego County Public Health Director Jiancheng Huang announced there were no new positive cases COVID-19 on May 9, with the total number of positive cases remaining at 72. Fifty-eight people have recovered and are no longer in mandatory isolation. There are three confirmed COVID-19 related deaths in Oswego County.
When Entergy, the former owner of the JAFplant in Scriba, announced it was going to be closing the facility permanently in late 2015, Palmitesso responded by seeking out a new job opportunity.
There was a vacancy at the Oswego County EMO for a radiological specialist, and equipped with knowledge about JAF’s radiological program as a member of the plant’s emergency planning group, she began her new job in 2016.
“It seemed like a great opportunity at the right time,” she said. “My co-workers at JAF had all worked in the position with the county in the past and encouraged me to apply.”
Radiological specialists provide radiological plan training to emergency response personnel at agencies in both Oswego and Onondaga counties, city agencies and some state and federal response agencies.
They also manage the inventory and maintenance of all the radiological instruments and equipment that the agencies use during exercises and real events should they occur.
“During an exercise or real event, radiological specialists have the responsibility to assess emergency conditions at a given plant, including the potential radiological impact to members of the public,” Palmitesso said.
They then make recommendations to the chairman of the legislature as to the proper course of action to protect the public.
Nuclear planning background
Palmitesso said her time spent at JAF was invaluable to her in stepping into both the radiological specialist job and her current position.
“It gave me an understanding of the radiological program as well as the necessary interactions required to help maintain the high level of success of the program,” she said.
Palmitesso also said her experience at JAF gave her a solid understanding of the onsite aspects of the emergency plan, lines of communications with the plants and actions that plant operators may take that affect offsite response actions given the situation.
The county EMO works closely with its nuclear partners at both Exelon’s Nine Mile Point and the JAF plants to implement its emergency plans if needed.
“Our ultimate goal is to protect the health and safety of the public residing within the 10-mile emergency planning zone surrounding the nuclear power plants,” she said.
Palmitesso said community outreach programs are conducted to keep the public aware of the emergency plan, provide them with information and give them the opportunity to ask questions.
A public information brochure is developed jointly between Exelon, Oswego County and New York state and is mailed annually to provide members of the public living within the 10-mile EPZ planning information.
Topics include basic radiation principles, notification through siren activation, use of potassium iodide during an emergency, designated evacuation and bus routes, as well as what to do, how to prepare and where to go during a radiological incident.
There is also an access and functional needs card for those residents who may require special assistance in the event of an emergency.
She said the private sector joins city, county, state and federal agencies in training and exercising with the power plant owners in case of an incident at the nuclear plants.
Palmitesso said members of the public should be aware the nuclear power plants have a host of emergency response procedures in place.
There is also a prompt notification system to alert county and state emergency management groups if an emergency is declared, she added.
Also, she said there are redundant safety systems in place at the plants to enable them to respond during emergency conditions.
Oswego’s incredible weather
Weather alerts and informing the public about the possibility of natural disasters are also among the top priority areas for the EMO.
Palmitesso said weather-related emergencies in Oswego County have included lake-effect snowstorms, blizzard warnings, ice storms, flash flooding from heavy lake-effect rain, severe thunderstorms, high wind events, as well as Lake Ontario shoreline flooding.
Oswego County became a StormReady community under the National Weather Service (NWS) program in 2004. The StormReady program helps arm Oswego County with the communication and safety skills needed to save lives and property before, during and after an event.
The EMO also became part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s NWS Weather-Ready Nation program in 2018.
NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service is moving new science and technology into NWS operations that will improve forecasts and ultimately increase weather-readiness.
EMO also works closely with the Oswego County Emergency Communicators, which consist of Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services and the NWS’ SKYWARN storm spotter program.
SKYWARN is a volunteer program with between 350,000 and 400,000 trained severe weather spotters. These volunteers help keep their local communities safe by providing timely and accurate reports of severe weather to the NWS.
“Members and other volunteers are provided training to become severe weather spotters,” Palmitesso said. “The spotters can then provide timely and accurate reports of severe weather to the NWS and EMO during severe weather events.”
She said the EMO shares timely NWS information with Oswego County emergency response agencies and municipalities on a regular basis, monitors reports of severe weather with them while taking a team approach to provide public warnings.
Palmitesso touched on the skill sets she has which her with an edge in terms of leading emergency management for the county.
“I recognize that emergency management requires a team approach and takes the support of all government agencies as well as strong partnerships with private businesses to be effective,” she said. “I would say my style is collaborative and inclusive — we need to work as a team to do the best job we can for the entire community.”
In terms of job gratification, Palmitesso said she enjoys using the equipment in the radiological program, meeting new people through the training program and working for the safety of the community.
“As director, I look forward to continuing the radiological program and learning more about all the hazards that we face and how we can prepare best to keep our county safe,” she added.
As far as challenges she expects to face directing operations at the EMO, Palmitesso said, “Honestly, you never know what you don’t know. I think learning more about the all-hazards approach to emergency management as new emergencies like COVID-19 happen is important.”
Any emergency preparedness plan using the all-hazards approach should address threats or hazards classified as probable and hazards that could cause injury, property damage, business disruption or environmental impact.
“Emergency management is always evolving and learning new things makes it exciting,” she said.
As far as her college athletic career, Palmitesso helped the Lakers’ volleyball program post a 78-31 record and a 20-9 SUNYAC mark over her final three seasons.
She was recognized in each of those three seasons, earning All-SUNYAC West honors from the conference in 1991, 1992 and 1993.
Palmitesso also was named All-State in her final year.
For many, Hall of Fame status equates to being the best of the best.
“For as long as I can remember, I have always been involved in sports and have had tremendous support from my family in all my endeavors,” she said.
She said her Hall of Fame status at SUNY Oswego provided tremendous recognition for the women’s volleyball program.
“From a personal standpoint, the selection was the highest recognition by my peers for all the hard work, perseverance, efforts and accomplishments as a student athlete,” she said.
Palmitesso still plays volleyball but nothing on an organized or competitive level.
“I play just for fun and do like to stay active,” she said. “I enjoy the outdoors and spending time with my dog. I have begun to play golf, although I am not very good at it. Practice makes perfect,” she said.
Palmitesso expressed great admiration for her hometown.
“I enjoy the change of seasons and all the opportunities this great county presents no matter what time of year it is,” she said.
Birth date: April 1972
Current address: Oswego
Education: Oswego High School, (1990); SUNY Oswego, (1994)
Personal: In a relationship and have a 6-year-old German shepherd and a calico cat
Hobbies: Hiking, camping, traveling, gardening, attending sporting events and beginner golfer