NY Fire, Police Officials Question City's Snow Storm Plans

Nov. 3, 2023
A preparedness plan is being questioned by the Buffalo fire union, saying equipment and training is not ready a year after deadly blizzard.

Nov. 1—Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown filed his snow plan for the 2023-24 winter season two days shy of the Nov. 1 deadline.

His administration announced it has ordered a mini-tracked ambulance, four tracked utility terrain vehicles and four trailers, and will have five snowmobiles for Buffalo firefighters to use for rescue operations during heavy snow storms.

He also announced that the city had hired a new emergency services manager over the weekend.

Those moves all follow recommendations made in an after-action study that the city commissioned following the deadly three-day blizzard in December that claimed the lives of 31 city residents and 16 others.

A Buffalo Common Council member and the leaders of the police and fire unions questioned Wednesday whether it is too late, but city leaders say planning for extreme weather is anything but simple and takes time.

The new emergency services manager, Thomas Luby, a former New York City fire captain with decades of experience, is starting later this month. The mini-tracked ambulance, UTVs and trailers won't be delivered until mid-to-late November, and the snowmobiles, to be donated by Delaware North, are expected to be delivered in about 30 days. It will take another six months for the ambulance to arrive.

The snow plan, set up by the mayor's office and city Department of Public Works, was on time as required by the city charter — and much more specific about what to do in an extreme winter storm — but it arrived just as the city saw its first snowfall.

"The mayor says we are ready. We can't be ready," said University Council Member Rasheed N.C. Wyatt, who with North Council Member Joseph Golombek co-sponsored an amendment to the city charter that would move up the deadline for the city snow plan to April 1.

"Does having that winter snow plan in November make any sense? I don't know who (established that date), but that is kind of ridiculous," Wyatt said.

Moving up the snow plan to April 1 would allow for better planning, he said, and snow plans would be submitted before the city budget season in May. It would also allow for more time for public input.

"It would be more transparent," Wyatt said.

The Common Council Legislation Committee is scheduled to discuss the ordinance deadline amendment Wednesday.

Brown believes April 1 is too early and unrealistic. His spokesman, Michael J. DeGeorge, pointed out that snow storms may still be happening in April. But Brown supports an earlier deadline — perhaps in September or October, DeGeorge said.

There is also the matter of the vehicles that would allow city firefighters and police officers to better respond to emergencies in the snow.

As the blizzard bombarded the region from Dec. 23 to Dec. 25, firefighters and police officers struggled to reach people in need of rescue. Fire trucks got stuck in snow drifts. Patrol cars, even those with all-wheel drive, were useless. All the while, 911 calls from stranded motorists and freezing families piled up.

In multiple instances, emergency responders teamed up with workers operating large front loaders, which would scoop up snow so emergency vehicles could get through blinding, freezing conditions to find snowbound motorists.

"We did everything we possibly could," said Vincent Ventresca, president of Buffalo Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 282. "Our members were freezing. They were stuck. Some people couldn't go home for four or five days."

Calls to equip first responders with snowmobiles and other snow rescue equipment arose immediately after the storm. But the first pieces of new city equipment — UTVs, which are vehicles that can be outfitted with caterpillar-like tracks — won't arrive for at least another couple of weeks. The mini-tracked ambulance is scheduled to be delivered in the spring.

"It snowed last night," Ventresca said Wednesday. "That's not preparedness."

Not only is the fire department awaiting the snowmobiles and other equipment, but no training has been provided to firefighters on how to use the additions, he said.

"We could have trained," Ventresca said.

Buffalo Fire Commissioner William Renaldo said that getting funding and obtaining vehicles and equipment is always a lengthy process. The purchasing process for the UTVs started in the summer of 2022, before even the November lake-effect snow storms, he said.

"We basically moved as quickly as we could to secure the money for the vehicles," Renaldo said.

As for training, the fire commissioner said two senior fire officials received special training through Erie County about how to use the UTVs and other equipment, and will provide training to both firefighters and police officers.

Firefighters within days also will take an online safety course on using UTVs, Renaldo said after meeting Wednesday with Ventresca.

John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, said he does not know of any new training provided to police officers about how to respond to calls in extreme snow events.

He said officers have not been provided any new equipment.

"We don't even have 4-wheel drive vehicles," Evans said. "From what I've seen, this department will again simply hope we don't get a storm and limp through it when it does happen."

Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia contended that most of the police department's fleet is all-wheel-drive and that members of the police department have worked during the past year on improving response protocols to extreme weather.

The police department is purchasing six of its own UTVs, he said, one using asset forfeiture funds and five more from a state Homeland Security grant that was recently approved. He expects the department to get the equipment in "a couple of months."

Gramaglia said members of the police Underwater Recovery Team and SWAT will handle rescue operations during major snow storms and will be trained on how to use the UTVs.

Ventresca also questioned how the new emergency services manager, who will be part of the Buffalo Fire Department, will be able to plan new response protocols before another major winter storm hits. He pointed out that the fire commissioner is supposed to function as emergency manager in a major event.

Renaldo and Gramaglia said they believe Luby will play an important role in coordinating storm response.

"I think he's going to be a great asset," Renaldo said.

The snow plan also designates nine locations throughout the city as potential warming centers — one in each district.

Wyatt said the warming center in his district would be the Gloria J. Parks Community Center at 3242 Main St.

"They have no generator. They have no cots. No blankets. No pillows," Wyatt said.

Public Works Commissioner Nate Marton said Tuesday that generators were in the process of being distributed.

The mayor said the centers would be marked on the outside with blue lights that would help identify them as emergency shelters.

Snow planners also said each warming center that is opened would be staffed by two Buffalo Fire Department "paramedics."

Ventresca pointed out that the fire department doesn't have paramedics, but does have EMTs, and that this part of the plan was news to him.

"Where are they?" he asked. "How are the members getting (to the warming centers)? What equipment will they have?"


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