Officials say they learned from blizzard
Published 5:09 pm, Monday, December 2, 2013
BRIDGEPORT -- From new equipment to new snow emergency protocols, Mayor Bill Finch's staff says an outside review of the city's response to February's blizzard left them well-prepared for the approaching winter.
"We wanted to make sure we learned every lesson possible," said Adam Wood, the mayor's chief of staff.
There's also going to be a different leader running the public facilities department full time, rather than, as has been the case for several years, splitting responsibilities between that mammoth agency and the parks office.
But the administration insists that's a coincidence, not a lesson-learned.
It took days for Bridgeport, which had only prepared for a 19-inch snowfall, to dig out from beneath 30 inches of frozen precipitation dumped on the city between Feb. 8 and Feb. 9.
Charlie Carroll, who since 2008 has juggled the jobs of public facilities chief and parks director, in the coming weeks will return to running the latter office full-time. Carroll's deputy, Jorge Garcia, takes over public facilities.
Both Carroll and Garcia, who once was the school district's facilities head, will earn $125,544.
More InformationFor more information on emergency preparedness, visit Bridgeport's Emergency Management Department online at http://www.bridgeportct.gov/EmergencyMgmt
For more information on Bridgeport's Reverse 911 system, visit http://www.bridgeportct.gov/rev911
Carroll's salary was $154,000.
"This comes at a time when we're reopening (the) Pleasure Beach (peninsula) and a ton of other new parks," Wood said. "Charlie has served the city incredibly well ... And we're very lucky to have him continuing to serve."
The changes were reflected in the 2013-14 budget Finch submitted to the City Council in April.
Finch has always denied the decision was a result of the intense criticism he faced following the blizzard.
But when the council held a public hearing in February on the storm, Finch sat to the side, with Carroll, Garcia and other emergency management officials seated front and center to face constituents' fury.
"I don't think any of us ever intended it to be this long," Carroll said of his balancing two jobs. "The mayor's very aggressive at taking care of the city's parks, developing new parks. There are many projects on the board and it's really becoming too difficult to try to manage them all. I'm happy to go back to parks and implement that plan."
For incoming City Councilman Rick Torres, R-130, whose high-taxed Black Rock neighborhood still complains about blizzard cleanup, it's just a shuffling of the deck chairs. Torres wanted heads to roll and an outsider with a proven record hired to take over public facilities.
"I happen to like Charlie Carroll, personally," said Torres. "(But) anyone who denies there was failure is a fool."
But Finch and his allies have pointed to the historic nature of the storm and also blamed residents who ignored an emergency declaration and left their snow-covered vehicles on city streets to block the plows.
"There are certainly times ... where it might be easier to say, `Where's the rolling of the heads?' " said Councilwoman Susan Brannelly, D-130, who also represents Black Rock. "But I don't believe 3 feet of snow would warrant heads rolling. Can we look at our process and do it better next time? No question."
Finch hired the CDR Maguire firm to draft an after action report on the blizzard and recommend improvements.
CDR concluded the city's personnel "performed with extreme dedication" but were hampered by a poor forecast, citizens who ignored parking and travel restrictions, a lack of equipment and problems coordinating the response among departments.
The city purchased 10 trucks of various sizes for sanding and plowing, plus a second "brine truck" that pretreats roads before a snowfall to stop the freezing and make them easier to plow.
Carroll said the city spent around $90,000 upgrading public facilities' radio system.
"We had dead spots before in the city (and) we couldn't really talk to the police department," Carroll said.
The department also bought more handheld radios to distribute to contractors hired to help with snow removal.
Carroll said there are three contractors on the "will call list" to provide more manpower and equipment.
"We again put out proposals for contractors to come to work with the city," Carroll said. "We don't do really well with it because some will tell us, `Your streets are too narrow, our equipment's too big.' "
Prior years' public facilities' budgets noted that the annual goal of making plow routes more efficient was stymied by a lack of manpower. Carroll said if necessary the city will turn to its sanitation truck drivers.
"Depending on the magnitude of the event, we will then decide if we want to suspend sanitation and recycling for a day and put the plows on the sanitation trucks," Carroll said. "Most of the guys in sanitation started out in the roadway side (but) some had to be familiarized with it again."
The Finch administration was criticized for taking plows off the road for three hours at the height of the blizzard.
Carroll said going forward snow removal personnel and equipment during "white outs" when blinding snow is a hazard, will retreat to sites throughout the city -- firehouses, schools -- rather than the public facilities garage.
"So when intense snow lets up they're still in the area they were in," Carroll said. "We keep them all out there."
The city is also expanding the definition of "essential staff" -- people who must report to work during major storms -- to include lawyers and administrative personnel to stay indoors and help with everything from making sure contractors are doing their jobs to compiling detailed records that will help secure federal reimbursements.
"You work an event like a blizzard and you're out there six or seven days. When it's over, everybody is tired," Carroll said. "It takes a considerable amount of effort ... to get everybody back in the room and figure out what we did."
The Finch administration is also refining its emergency parking and travel declarations.
Finch waited until 5 p.m. Feb. 8 -- the night of the blizzard -- to declare a snow emergency, while Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia acted on Feb. 7.
Then in early March the city was very proactive, issuing a parking ban several hours in advance of a storm that never fully struck. Neighborhoods around St. Vincent's Medical Center and College awoke to a flurry of orange parking tickets but no snow, frustrating many of the recipients who said they never learned of the ban.
"We're reaching out to the large employers in the city -- the ones that make sense, like the hospitals -- to try to ensure a little better coordination," Wood said. "They need to be as mindful as possible because this is a helpful thing to clearing the city streets of snow."
And the city is also working to sign up as many residents as possible for the reverse 911 notification system.
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