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Snowstorm Will Test NYC's Emergency Response

As the administration of Michael Bloomberg braces to handle its third snowstorm in two weeks, his highest level administrator tries to assure residents that he won't make his third major snow cleanup blunder.

Stephen Goldsmith is New York's deputy mayor for operations. That title puts him in charge of coordinating a variety of city agencies to salt and plow streets, tow cars, and keep major thoroughfares passable in emergencies. He is now supervising a new city strategy designed to ensure that the Bloomberg Administration's self-described failure to adequately handle the blizzard of the last week of 2010 won't reoccur.

"We owe you and all New Yorkers for that lack of performance, our administration's apology and my personal promise not to let it happen again," Goldsmith said to city council members at a hearing Monday into the city's response to the blizzard. It left 170 ambulances disabled, even more buses stranded and countless passenger vehicles abandoned in 20 inch-deep snow on thousands of miles of streets that went unplowed for days.

Part of Goldsmith's effort to keep his promise to the council is a 15-point plan intended to make it more clear as to when the city should declare a snow emergency, which would restrict cars from emergency routes, and allow them to be towed if they are parked on emergency routes. The plan is also intended to promote greater awareness by the city of where snow removal equipment is needed and how it is used.

With anywhere from seven inches to a foot of snow expected to fall on New York City Tuesday night, evidence of the city's new plan was in place at the Department of Sanitation's West Village salt yard. All morning long, salt trucks filled to the rim and garbage trucks outfitted with plows and tire chains came and went, a visible show that the city expects to be ready for the new storm.

Beyond the visual show of confidence, the city's snow event plan includes specific procedural changes, including:

- seeking snow removal assistance from private contractors as far ahead of storms as possible

- mobilizing tow trucks faster and more frequently

- coordinating different agencies working in the city's Emergency Operations Center more efficiently, and activating the EOC earlier

- installing GPS devices and radios on every sanitation truck

- dispatching vehicles equipped with live video feeds to neighborhoods to see where plows and salt are needed

- involving more employees from city departments other than Sanitation in snow removal efforts

- a clear protocol for determining when to declare a snow emergency

Goldsmith's testimony was called "incredibly frank" by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. While his plan is detailed and is being looked to to correct city hall's shortcomings responding to snow events, it marks the second time Goldsmith has fallen short in major snow emergencies.

He was mayor of Indianapolis from 1992 to 2000. In 1994, that Midwestern city got hit by two snowstorms within a week's time. Goldsmith caught flak for not being in Indianapolis when his city needed him -- in fact, he was in New York that week -- and when some major roadways went unplowed, he got an earful from constituents.

He implemented new snow response procedures, which won praise from snow removal workers for the rest of his two terms. But when the blizzard struck New York during Christmas Week, Goldsmith's failures were strikingly familiar: he was out of town, this time at his other home in Washington, D.C., and he sent out a message via Twitter during the depth of the storm saying, "Good snow work by sanitation."

Therefore, on his record, the man who has been deputy mayor for eight months has two strikes. The new snow response plan appears to be Stephen Goldsmith's attempt to avoid strike three.

Other city department commissioners testified before the city council on Monday and have contributed to the new snow response plan. They also said late Monday that a snow emergency has not been ruled out for this latest storm.

Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano also said all ambulances are being outfitted with "sled-like devices" that could be used to transport patients through snow.

And the department will soon test out a new type of snow chain 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.

Joseph Bruno, commissioner of the city's Office of Emergency Management, was questioned about the city's decision not to openits emergency command center until 24 hours after the National Weather Service declared a blizzard warning for the area and justan hour before forecasts predicted the heaviest snow would arrive.

Bruno acknowledged that the city waited too long to convene the task force of police, fire and sanitation tow trucks and front-endloaders that went out to free the multitudes of snowbound ambulances.

That did not happen until long after the 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.

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 how we feel on their behalf."

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


Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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