NY-TERT Response to Hurricane Sandy
By D. Jeremy DeMar, RPL, ENP, with personal deployment accounts from John Paffie, Joshua Owen, Timothy Scott & Christopher P. Zacharias
I had two missions that week. The first: to ready the house for Halloween. As the neighborhood “Halloween guru,” I have developed quite the reputation for going all out with decorations. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, my family reminded me on a regular basis of my “obligation to the neighborhood.”
The second mission: to put finishing touches on my Nov. 2 Telecommunicator Emergency Response Taskforce (TERT) Deployment Awareness class, which was to be held at my place of employment, the Emergency Communications Department (ECD) in Rochester, N.Y. I scheduled the class months earlier, following my participation in an APCO-sponsored TERT Team Leader “Train the Trainer” class in Alexandria, Va., in May. A few weeks after returning from Virginia, I e-mailed our director, John Merklinger, and asked if we could put on a class. He was all for it. The first class I scheduled and began promoting was a TERT Team Leader class, held at our office on Sept. 27. November’s Deployment Awareness class would be scheduled a month or so later. Both classes filled relatively quickly.
New York state sees its share of severe weather, historically and most commonly, in the form of moderate to heavy snowfall, especially in Upstate New York. Infrastructure and snow removal capabilities in place statewide allow us to mitigate weather events of this type with relative ease. In recent years however, the weather in and around New York state, like many other states, has been anything but common. Heavier than average precipitation and wind storms occur on a much more frequent basis. Tornadoes, which at one time were relatively nonexistent in the state, are seen and reported more often.
The weather phenomena most New York residents are unfamiliar with is the hurricane, which our state has seen the effects of twice in the past two years. These two hurricanes, Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012, generated multiple requests for TERT assistance from PSAPs and emergency communications centers across the state, further justifying the need for a comprehensive statewide TERT training program.
Heads Up Forecast
I first became aware of Hurricane Sandy on or about Oct. 24, when the media started talking about a northward directional trend for the storm system. One early forecast model for the storm (which later would prove to be extremely accurate) showed the system would move in a northerly direction over the Atlantic along the Eastern Seaboard, and then abruptly swing in a westerly direction into the New Jersey and New York coastlines. Since I had personally participated in a last-minute TERT deployment following Hurricane Irene, I felt the best course of action was to send an e-mail to ECD’s Communications Response Team (CRT), to be certain all team members were aware of the storm’s current status as well as its potential to impact our area. On the evening of Oct. 25, I sent the first of many storm related e-mails out to the team. The e-mail recapped much of what the media had been saying about the storm, but more importantly, it addressed the need to prepare for deployment in the event the storm followed the track forecasters predicted. Ironically, the New York governor declared a State of Emergency the next day for all of New York state, in preparation for Sandy’s potential impact.
With Hurricane Irene, spur of the moment decisions were made about who would deploy and when. What the e-mail to the team accomplished was a state of readiness, and it eliminated last-minute schedule changes and spur-of-the-moment decision making by determining in advance the availability of those willing and able to deploy. I asked all of our team members to provide personal availability from Sunday, Oct. 28 through Saturday, Nov. 10. With the storm scheduled to arrive in the New York/New Jersey area on Oct. 28, I felt requests for TERT assistance would more than likely start arriving shortly after the storm made landfall. There were no advance requests for assistance prior to the storm’s arrival. Eight of our newest team members were scheduled to attend the Nov. 2 Deployment Awareness training. While they had all completed IS-100, IS-700, and in some cases IS-144, our team members are required to complete Deployment Awareness in a classroom setting as well, before being given the all clear to deploy. Based on the size and predicted severity of the storm, I asked our newest team members to provide their availability. If a request for assistance came in prior to their attending the Nov. 2 class, and adequate deployment coverage from existing team members wasn’t available; I would put on an earlier class specifically for them. Fortunately, the Nov. 2 date worked, without a moment to spare.
In July of this year, I completed my Registered Public-Safety Leader (RPL) certification through APCO. My yearlong Service Project was on the Development of the TERT Initiative in New York State. Part of that project involved making TERT-specific contacts in every county throughout New York state. Initially, an e-mail list I’d found made it look like the majority of my contact work had already been completed. I later discovered that the e-mail list was extremely outdated, ultimately resulting in individual calls to contacts in about 70% of the state. This proved beneficial in the long run, because I interacted with many TERT interested and committed public safety communications professionals in the process.
On Oct. 28, ECD Director Merklinger and I sent an e-mail to everyone on the New York State 9-1-1 Coordinators e-mail group as well as the brand new TERT contact list compiled for the state. As no official request for TERT assistance had come in thus far, this e-mail, like the one I’d sent to our team a few days earlier, was also preparatory in nature. It advised that New York state had activated the Emergency Operations Center in Albany and that we were looking to compile a list of available TERT resources on a statewide basis. Within a matter of hours, we received notifications of TERT personnel available for deployment across New York.
Late in the day on Oct. 27, The Weather Channel displayed a “Sandy Threat Index” map, which clearly showed two-thirds of New York in an “Action” zone, while the remaining third was in an “Alert” zone. By this time, I was receiving weather updates on my phone and via e-mail, to ensure I had the most current information on the storm. As the morning of Oct. 28 began, all of New York state was in an “Action” zone. It quickly became evident that everyone in the state would experience some part of Hurricane Sandy. Rochester sat in the center of the storm’s projected path. I couldn’t help wondering whether our center would be the one asking for assistance.
By Monday, Oct. 29, six New York counties (Monroe, Seneca, Allegany, Lewis, Niagara and Yates) had made TERT personnel from their agencies available for deployment. The number of personnel available would increase over the course of the next 24–48 hours, as resources from Onondaga, Broome and Saratoga counties signed in. Locally, Rochester (Monroe County) saw its share of wind-related damage and power outages due to the storm. Our damage paled in comparison to the widespread disaster and devastation experienced downstate. Surprisingly, the official request for TERT assistance from downstate arrived at week’s end.
At work early the morning of Nov. 2, I prepared for TERT Deployment Awareness class. Since the majority of my students were from Upstate New York, I figured most if not all of my attendees would be present. As people arrived for class, the discussion among them pertained to what was going on downstate. Several asked whether I’d received word on the need for assistance in New York City or on the Island. So far, I had not; however, there was some speculation that Suffolk County would be calling in the near future.
Suffolk County Requests Aid
An hour or so into class, the first message from Suffolk County arrived, requesting a phone call from me. Not currently in a position to call back, I made Director Merklinger aware of the request and asked him to call Suffolk County, and returned to class. Later that afternoon, as class came to an end, I received a page from the director indicating the official request for assistance had been made and that the selection process for agencies to deploy had begun. Fortunately, the only item left on the day’s agenda was a tour of our facilities. I briefed the class on what was going on and excused myself. One of our staff members took care of the tour in my absence.
Initially, we figured we’d need approximately 40 personnel, assuming four one-week deployments of eight to 10 TERT members each. We also felt that other counties would call for assistance, once the first wave of TERT relief arrived in Suffolk County. As luck would have it, we ended up with roughly 40 volunteers on the first e-mail appeal sent.
The first deployment to Suffolk County consisted of four dispatchers from Monroe County and four dispatchers from Onondaga County. Two of the four dispatchers from Monroe County had just completed Deployment Awareness training when the request for assistance came in. Director Merklinger secured a City of Rochester 4X4 Chevrolet Suburban for the use of the Monroe County team. The team departed Monroe County at approximately 1730 and arrived in Onondaga County at 1900. Both teams left Onondaga County at approximately 2015 and arrived in Suffolk County at approximately 0125 on Nov. 3. All deployed team members were asked to log their daily activities on an ICS 214 form, and report back periodically to their respective agencies with updates on the deployment.
Shortly after the first deployment left for Suffolk County, plans were in the works for a second wave of TERT relief. The second deployment consisted of four dispatchers and one dispatch supervisor from Broome County, two dispatchers from Lewis County and two dispatchers from Yates County. All were advised early on that they were officially on standby for the next deployment and that they should plan to depart for Suffolk County on or about Nov. 8.
Complicating matters not only from a relief standpoint but for those living and working downstate was the arrival of a post Hurricane Sandy Nor’easter. “The storm brought wet snow, sleet, rain and wind gusts that reached up to 54 mph on Long Island, N.Y.” (abcnews.go.com, 11/8/12). Although there had initially been some discussion about pulling the Monroe and Onondaga teams out prior to the storm’s arrival, both remained in Suffolk County during the storm, as the Broome, Lewis and Yates teams traveled to relieve them. The end result was no loss of TERT relief to Suffolk County for the duration of the deployment.
As the Broome, Lewis and Yates teams settled in, and Monroe and Onondaga returned, preparations were already being made to send a third wave of TERT relief to Suffolk County. Teams from Niagara, Oneida and Allegany counties were placed on standby, with an anticipated deployment date of Nov. 16. Those placed on standby understood that this portion of the deployment would more than likely extend beyond the Thanksgiving holiday.
On Nov. 13, after speaking with Suffolk County’s commissioner and director of emergency management, Suffolk County Department of Fire Rescue Acting Chief of Communications Gregory C. Miniutti reported that additional deployments of TERT personnel would not be necessary beyond Nov. 15. Following that notification, Niagara, Oneida and Allegany counties were advised to stand down.
New York’s TERT program continues to grow. By the end of 2012, NY-TERT trained and certified 91 new TERT personnel; 54 of them as TERT Team Leaders. Several Deployment Awareness and Team Leader classes have been scheduled for 2013. Program updates and training opportunities are available online on the NY-TERT blog at nytert.blogspot.com; the Facebook page at facebook.com/nytert; the NY-TERT Community on APCO’s PSConnect.org; and via periodic team e-mails.
It will only be a matter of time before NY-TERT is called on again to assist fellow telecommunicators and dispatchers in their time of need. The variety of severe weather incidents seen across the state, coupled with the possibility of man-made disaster, reinforces the importance of regular communication, interaction, and ongoing training and development among team members. NY-TERT stands ready to answer the call, helping those who selflessly help so many others on a daily basis.
NY-TERT Member Reports on Deployment—Suffolk County, November 2012
From John Paffie, emergency services dispatcher, Broome County Emergency Services
I would start by saying it was a great deployment., a great learning experience in many aspects. To learn from how other centers around the state operate and to be able to learn from those that we were deployed with. Very good group of people that went from Yates, Lewis and the 5 from Broome. Worked very well together, and were able to handle the task at hand.
We were primarily there to assist with the non-emergency calls that were coming in and helping those that were looking for assistance. Most of the calls we took were for power or FEMA, but none the less took those calls away from the call center. We also ran the radios at a forward area on Fire Island, with minimum telephone interface with those that live there yearlong. The IC on the island was extremely sharp, and overall a very good guy. Chief Bertucci of the Kismet Fire Department, also a captain with FDNY. Made operations run smooth in a pretty tense situation. We split up between the nine of us that were there; six worked days from 7 a.m. until 7p.m. or maybe a little later because of travel time. Three worked nights; two on Fire Island and 1 working in the call center to take those non emergency calls that would roll over at night when the EOC was not in operation.
We were told to pack and be prepared to be there for eight days. It was hard to prepare what to pack for because we were told that we were going to be in the field. So we had to pack for cold weather, not sure what to expect. We took MREs and cases of water for us, which we left behind when we didn’t need them and there were people there that did. We arrived on Thursday night to be ready to work for Friday morning. Although there was no food provided for us at the tent itself, we had food provided for us at the EOC or Kismet. We got there well after the storm had gone. The storm affected us only in the capacity for a hotel to stay in. A comfortable bed would be my only request—LOL. They had us in a tent behind an elderly persons’ facility. It was nice, we had heat and electric. Heated bathrooms with hot showers separate from the tent.
The moment that stands out the most is seeing some of the damage on Fire Island, when they ran us out on a gator to see some of the damage. They showed where sand should have been and was nowhere near there. Houses and streets just covered with sand, some houses removed from their foundations and relocated. It stands out to me because it was a good feeling knowing that I was trying to facilitate those that needed help, when just a year earlier I was in the need of help. I was flooded and lost my home in the aftermath of Irene and Lee. I am still not 100% done with my house and was very nervous when they started talking about the path of Sandy. Once the storm came through and was gone, I was very relieved to have not been impacted. So I could feel what some of these people were feeling as the days, weeks and months will pass. I am sorry for loss of life during the storm, and the loss of property was just unreal.
I am happy to say that I could help and would help again if I could.
From Joshua Owen, emergency services dispatcher, Broome County Office of Emergency Services
I was part of the group from Broome County that responded as a TERT to Suffolk County after Hurricane Sandy struck. We left to head to the Island on Thursday, Nov. 8 with the idea that we would be beginning our complete assignment the following day. We traveled down with a 12-passenger van and a trailer that was filled with our personal supplies (clothes, food, toiletries), boxes of MREs (meals ready to eat), many gallons of drinking water and stuffed animals to give to children that had been affected. I would estimate that we were probably prepared to stay twice as long as we were needed.
One of the difficulties we faced in preparing was truly not having an idea what we were headed into. Trying to pack enough clothes for a weeklong deployment while limiting the amount of items we were bringing was tough. The weather forecast for our duration of the trip ranged from snow and 20s to sun and high 50s. We were fortunate going down that we had a good amount of time to prepare to go, and we were spared the brunt of the storm.
Our travels were fairly uneventful. It wasn’t until we were less than 50 miles outside of NYC that we started to notice any damage in the form of high winds. We also started seeing the snow on the ground from the Nor’easter that had come through the day prior. Once we actually got in to the city and down by the water, the wind damage became more evident with the number of trees down, and you could tell by the debris areas where water had previously covered the roadway. Once we got out on to the Long Island Expressway, things just became very dark due to the lack of power from the storm.
When we arrived at Suffolk County Fire/Rescue, we were sent to our sleeping area for the week. We ended up staying in what I could only describe as a military or hazmat decontamination tent. I know there is probably a technical term for the tent, but it’s just not coming to me. There were actually four of these rounded tents that were all connected. One of the tents was used as the main “living room,” where people would occasionally gather and supplies were mostly kept, and then the other three tents contained cots. There were about 20 cots per tent. Because we were there later on during operations, there were only five of us in our tent, and then some of the other TERT dispatchers and FEMA medics occupied the other tents. The accommodations were simple, but ultimately not bad. Considering the weather when we arrived, we fully expected the tents to not be terribly warm, but they had generators running around the clock pumping heat in. There was a set of port-a-potties just outside the “door” to the tent, and then about 20 yards away were two trailers. One of the trailers contained 12 showers, and the other trailer contained some toilets and a nice bathroom.
My assignment while deployed was working the overnight shift on Fire Island. They had a command center set up in the town of Kismet that was manned 24/7. Our commute to Kismet was about 45 minutes and included about 30 miles of highway driving, a couple of checkpoints, and some very dark bridges. Once we were on Fire Island, we quickly realized why we needed a four-wheel drive vehicle becaus part of the commute included washed out roads and some of the beach. Our shifts ran from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., but with the commute it was closer to 7 p.m. to 9 a.m.
The command post at Kismet was fairly complete. While we worked out of the firehouse there, Suffolk County FRES had a mobile command post set up in the event that the station lost power (the station was running off of a generator). Two dispatchers were assigned to Fire Island per shift, and our basic responsibilities while in the command post overnight was to answer general questions coming in by phone and to monitor the radios to assist the police officers at the checkpoints and in the event something occurred on Fire Island. We would also update the command post weather reports, daily activity logs and various Incident Command System (ICS) forms.
That in a nutshell is what our deployment was like. It was most certainly an event I will always remember, and I am very glad I had the opportunity to assist others. Because our county has seen its fair share of disaster and flooding, it was good to be able to help others for once.
From Timothy Scott, fire dispatcher, Emergency Communications Department, Rochester, N.Y.
On Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and Long Island. Four days later, we were scheduled to attend the TERT Awareness training class here in Monroe County. Near the end of that class we were informed that a deployment had been requested by Suffolk County for eight dispatchers. Monroe County was to send four, with Onondaga sending four more. We were given an hour and a half to go home, pack and return to depart for Onondaga to pick up their four dispatchers. We met them and left for Suffolk.
The trip took a total of eight hours. On the way down on the thruway, we ran into gas lines miles long for fuel.
Upon our arrival, we went to the Emergency Operations Center to report in. The people manning the overnight at the center had no idea what to do with us. We waited for almost two hours before they gave us sleeping quarters that were at the Fire academy in a classroom with folding cots. The night was a short one since we got to sleep about 3:30 a.m. and had to be back for mission brief at 6 a.m.
We split up into two shifts by county, with Monroe taking nights and Onondaga handling days. Our main job was to answer the phones at the EOC information help desk along with Suffolk County CERT members, giving out information about shelters, food and electrical problems. One of the four of us was tasked with dispatching FEMA ambulances for medical transports to the various hospitals and shelters. On our third night there, two from each group were sent to Fire Island to man the command post for the island.
All in all this was, in my opinion, a good deployment. It was easy (for myself at least) to deploy on short notice because Monroe County was very lightly damaged, and my family was OK to be left alone. The conditions where we were in Suffolk were not horrendous in so much as there was electricity and meals supplied by the jail inmates from down the road.
I am glad that I volunteered to go on this deployment, I feel like what we did helped others in our state that got hit harder than we did, and I feel they would do the same for us.
From Christopher P. Zacharias, senior emergency services dispatcher, Broome County
The Broome County Team was deployed during the second round of deployments after the storm had moved through Long Island. We were scheduled to be deployed for a week, from Nov. 9 through Nov. 16. Our team left for Long Island on Nov. 8 to allow us extra travel time and time to prepare for the next day’s work. We left our public safety facility around noon on Thursday, Nov. 8th and arrived in Suffolk County around 7 p.m. We did not encounter any difficulties traveling down to Long Island. Once we started our shifts, we broke up into three groups.
Team A—Two dispatchers worked the day shift in the EOC, answering phone calls and dispatching the mutual aid ambulances (this team rotated shifts on Fire Island during the day with other mutual aid dispatchers).
Team B—Two dispatchers worked the night shift at the Fire Island Command Post manning the radio, answering the phone, updating weather information and completing ICS forms
Team C—One dispatcher worked the night shift in the communications center answering all the EOC phones after hours and dispatching the mutual aid ambulances.
I worked on Team C, answering the EOC phones after hours. My shift was 12 hours long from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. I was able to help the Suffolk County F.R.E.S. dispatchers by keeping them free to handle the emergency calls while I managed the calls from the public with questions about the storm recovery efforts. I was able to get all the updated information each day from the EOC and provide the needed information regarding resources at their disposal to the public. This made it easier, I think, for the dispatchers at Suffolk County. All the Suffolk County dispatchers did not have to be familiar with where the shelters were located, who could be called regarding shelters for pets, what number to call to make contact with L.I.P.A. and much more. This information was changing on a daily basis as the incident operations changed. I was also able to handle all the interfacility transports with the mutual aid ambulance. These interfacility transports were primarily moving displaced residents from one shelter to another or, in some cases, to a hospital. By me handling all the mutual aid ambulances the Suffolk County dispatchers did not have an added load of units to be tracking and dispatching.
Our team of five dispatchers ended our deployment on Friday, Nov. 16 and started back to Binghamton, N.Y. We did not have any difficulty making our way home and arrived back in Binghamton in the early afternoon.
It was a great experience meeting and working with the dispatchers of Suffolk County F.R.E.S.
About the Author
D. Jeremy DeMar, RPL, ENP, is a shift supervisor at the Emergency Communications Department in Rochester, New York. DeMar is the deputy TERT coordinator for New York state and an NJTI-certified TERT instructor. He serves on the NJTI Board to APCO. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.