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State DOT chief on storm readiness: ‘You can never be too prepared’

Two people died in their cars during last November’s storm, calling and pleading for help that never arrived.

This week in Buffalo, state transportation and emergency responders are gathering to plan how to better deal with emergencies like the storm that killed 14 people, including two men stuck in their cars.

Their answer?

Coordination. Planning. And technology.

“This is precisely what is required in a major event,” said Matthew Driscoll, the New York State transportation commissioner. “I don’t ever want to think (storm deaths) are unavoidable.”

Driscoll, a former Syracuse mayor appointed to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s cabinet in July, outlined some of the steps Tuesday at the Emergency Response Symposium in Buffalo:

• The first-ever agreement between the state Department of Transportation and state Thruway Authority allows the two agencies to share vehicles and staff during snow emergencies;

• An additional $50 million worth of winter weather equipment includes snowplows, loaders, graders and other vehicles;

• And county emergency managers will have access to new “New York Response” software providing detailed real-time data on incidents, location of equipment and weather conditions.

The lake-effect storm of November 2014 – which dumped up to 7 feet of snow in some towns – closed roads and schools, destroyed homes and barns, claimed livestock and stranded motorists, and displaced a Bills football game.

The storm’s biggest toll, though, was the deaths of 14 people, according to Erie County officials, the biggest storm casualty list since the Blizzard of ’77.

Two of the victims were snowbound drivers who phoned for help that never arrived. Their cars were buried under snow on the side of a road.

“You can never been too coordinated. You can never be too prepared,” Driscoll said. “We know about the importance of a coordinated response during events such as these because we faced them many times over the last several years.”

That’s why the state in recent years installed barrier gates to the Thruway and the Niagara Thruway, with more on the way for Routes 219, 400 and 33, officials said.

Officials discussed approaching local governments to coordinate signals on the thoroughfares as a way to keep traffic moving off secondary highways and the mainline Thruway. That could help prevent motorists from getting stuck in the snow and trapping others in their cars behind them.

“It’s very dangerous to have people on those limited-access highways,” said Dan Dytchkowskyj, an Erie County sheriff’s sergeant and vice chair of the Transportation Safety Advancement Group.

It’s why early 2015 brought advance pre-emptive Thruway closings and secondary roads.

That could become standard operating procedure. Officials acknowledged the closings are not always popular – but can save lives.

Anything that can be sensibly done to avoid motorists’ deaths should be done, said Maria Lehman, interim director of maintenance of operation for the state Thruway Authority.

“The problem is there’s no magic bullet,” she said. “Every storm is different.”

Twice in Lehman’s short tenure – she was appointed to her post just before the New Year – the stretch of the Thruway in Western New York was pre-emptively shut down because of an approaching lake-effect storm.

They were easy decisions after lessons learned from last November, Lehman said.

“I don’t want people stranded,” she said.

Last New Year’s Eve, Thruway officials closed the highway from Ripley to Rochester. Authorities in Pennsylvania and Ohio were notified and provided advance warning to motorists who were detoured onto Interstate 86 near Erie, Pa., and then north on Interstate 390.

That prevented motorists and truckers from risking a perilous, white-knuckled journey through the snowstorm and allowed crews to clear the Thruway sooner.

“We were up and running much quicker because of that,” Lehman said.

“Roads sometimes close themselves,” she added. “You get several jackknifed trucks, the road is closed and it is what it is.”

Driscoll called anticipating the storms and improving coordination among agencies essential to eliminating storm-related deaths.

“The only real positive outcome of these tragedies is the collective experience we gained and the lessons we have learned,” Driscoll said.

Some of the other improvements this year designed to enhance emergency preparedness will be real-time GPS data showing emergency officials the exact locations of more than 1,800 pieces of equipment, including snowplows and salt trucks, belonging to the state DOT, state Division of Homeland Security and the Thruway Authority.

Emergency managers will also have access to data on the locations of generators, light towers and sand baggers.

Work also continues on putting New York State’s new weather system online as part of the integrated software package, Driscoll said.

In all, 125 sites across the state will transmit real-time weather data.

All of that will make for better planning in advance of serious weather threats and allow for adjustments as conditions change, the commissioner said.

“We don’t want to make a decision the day before a storm hits, but three days before,” Driscoll said.

Motorist and civic responsibility also emerged as important themes in promoting public safety during extreme winter weather.

“It’s having that situational awareness,” said Lehman of Orchard Park.

“People need to remember that winter happens,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot more of high-intensity storms than we have, so bring the extra clothes, bring the water, bring the granola bars, be ready. Don’t let the gas go below a half a tank. Do all the things you would tell your kids to do.”

Meanwhile, Dytchkowskyj described some potential technological advances that federal highway officials are eyeing for vehicles. Those include the ability to interrupt a car’s radio system with emergency messages to notify motorists of approaching emergency vehicles or dangers ahead, or even taking control of a vehicle’s speedometer and slowing them down when approaching road hazards.

Futuristic in scope, they won’t be here in time for winter 2015-16, but Dytchkowskyj said all could start becoming commonplace within a decade.

“Our roads don’t belong to us as individuals,” Dytchkowskyj said. “They belong to the people.”