City officials grilled on blizzard response

January 10, 2011 2:13:31 PM PST
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration admitted multiple breakdowns in its decisions before, during and after a post-Christmas blizzard that paralyzed the city, telling lawmakers at a hearing Monday that the city is sorry and making changes.

A top deputy mayor and several commissioners testified at a City Council hearing about the Dec. 26 storm that dumped more than 2 feet of snow in parts of the city.

More than 100 ambulances became stuck as streets went unplowed and 911 calls backed up. Then, the overworked sanitation department fell behind on trash pickups, and garbage piled up.

Stephen Goldsmith, whose job as Bloomberg's deputy mayor of operations is to oversee snowstorm response, apologized to the city and the council for the many failures, including not briefing the mayor adequately at the start. The cleanup has damaged Bloomberg's reputation as a no-nonsense manager.

With another winter storm taking aim at New York, Bloomberg's officials endured an hourslong hearing that was intense at times but mostly polite. They recounted an extensive list of errors, describing the decision-making taking its first wrong turn when officials considered calling a snow emergency, but ultimately did not.

The declaration keeps private vehicles without snow tires or chains off designated snow routes and bans parking along those routes. The city last declared a snow emergency in 2005.

The administration now believes an emergency declaration might have kept more drivers off the road and triggered a more urgent response among city agencies and other authorities that use the declarations for guidance.

"Given the information available at the time, the decision not to declare an emergency was understandable," Goldsmith said. "However, based on what we know now, an emergency declaration could have yielded a more successful response."

Officials said the city is now creating a formal protocol for declaring snow emergencies.

Joseph Bruno, commissioner of the city's Office of Emergency Management, also said the city waited too long to convene the task force of police, fire and sanitation tow trucks and front-end loaders that went out to free the multitudes of snowbound ambulances.

That did not happen until well into Monday, long after snow had stopped falling and several hours after emergency vehicles had been marooned, some with patients inside. Many New Yorkers who needed urgent medical care did not get it.

"We were too slow to recognize that the strategy we had in place wasn't enough," Bruno said. "We lost time in getting the right focus on the problem and getting in place the equipment we needed to solve it."

Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano testified that the department is now testing out a new type of snow chains for ambulances. He said the city stopped using chains on ambulances 15 years ago, because many vehicles in the fleet were damaged repeatedly when chains broke off.

Cassano said all ambulances are also being outfitted with "sledlike devices" that could be used to transport patients through snow. Those would allow an ambulance to park at the end of an unplowed block, rather than turn down the street and risk becoming stuck.

Bruno was also questioned about the city's decision not to open its emergency command center until 24 hours after the National Weather Service declared a blizzard warning for the area and just an hour before forecasts predicted the heaviest snow would arrive.

"I'm not an emergency expert," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, "but an hour seems to me not enough time to get everybody there and fully focused in the way that the command center does."

Despite some intense questioning, the hearing was not explosive, as some had predicted. Lawmakers relayed their personal stories of frustrations and tragedies from their districts; many told the commissioners that days passed before plows showed up.

"People were scared, and then they were angry," said Councilman Mark Weprin, of Queens. "And that's how we feel now. That's now we feel on their behalf."

At one point during questioning, Councilwoman Letitia James stood up and heaved a loop of thick, heavy snow chains into the air, followed by a lighter, thinner version that she said was now being used on sanitation vehicles.

She asked if the less hardy-looking chains were due to budget cuts, but Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty said the department had been seeking to change out its chains for years, and that the new chains cost and performed the same.

Federal and local officials are investigating the cleanup, including rumors that some sanitation workers purposely slowed their work as a labor action.

Bloomberg's officials admitted the storm exposed weaknesses in city operations.

Those included a lack of decent methods to monitor street conditions in real time and communicate with plow drivers in the field. Officials did not fully realize how many city streets were unplowed well after the snow had stopped, Goldsmith said.

The sanitation department is equipping every truck with global positioning devices, which have two-way communications that plow workers can use to better report to emergency commanders the status of roads and obstacles. And during future snowstorms, teams of observers will troll the city with video cameras to send live feeds of street conditions back to emergency commanders.

That tactic was tested during a two-inch dusting on Friday.

The city also reported that it is streamlining the process for deploying equipment, as well as improving its abilities to quickly hire private contractors for towing, plowing and hauling.

Officials said the city will create an online portal with winter weather information, where New Yorkers will be able to post photos and video, increasing the real-time information available to commanders about the cleanup.

The hearing came as the weather service was forecasting a snowfall starting sometime Tuesday evening. New York City and its suburbs could get about 6 to 12 inches of snow, forecasters said.

The Mayor's 15-point action plan to address the problems:

  • Improve the process for declaring emergencies;
  • Provide a broader range of options that could be part of an emergency declaration and make them clear and understandable to New Yorkers;
  • Equip every Department of Sanitation truck with a GPS device enabled with two-way communication;
  • Improve accountability tools and plowing definitions used by Sanitation for street conditions;
  • Use live monitors (SCOUT) to stream video of trouble spots;
  • Enhance immediate availability of critical equipment;
  • Enhance ability to deploy City employees from other departments;
  • Enhance the Emergency Operations Center as the center of resource coordination;
  • Improve tow truck deployment;
  • Secure and expeditiously deploy private contractors for assistance;
  • Improve the process of hiring additional laborers;
  • Improve two-way communications through real time portal;
  • Provide better methods for citizens to request help;
  • Reform dispatch protocols in extreme and high volume events;
  • Accelerate PSAC integration and implementation.