New York’s Flood Patrol

Credit: FDNY

Extreme weather is increasing and affecting every part of the United States according to the government’s newest assessment of climate change. The report, published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program on May 6, predicts more sea-level rise, flooding, storm surges, precipitation and heat waves for East Coast cities.

Is New York ready? Maybe not, but it appears that New York’s fire and police departments, caught under-equipped for the last hurricane, are gearing up for water rescues. Just last month, the city placed a bid for new Mustang Survival rescue dry suits and inflatable emergency rescue boats for firefighters.

The FDNY is not alone in making strategic changes and buying new equipment. Last fall, the New York Police Department invested in seven new high-water resistant pickup trucks, specially outfitted to carry inflatable boats. Police said they’ll be used in seven flood-prone precincts throughout the city but are designed to move rapidly anywhere during a storm.

While the city’s fire and police departments are known for engaging in turf battles over who does what, they had to work together during Sandy. “There was no issue, but we did our thing and they did theirs,” said Chief William Seelig, from the FDNY Special Operations. Asked if there was any overlap during rescue missions, Seelig said, “There was enough to keep everyone busy.”

When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast on October 29, 2012, New York’s first responders—and their equipment—faced unprecedented challenges. According to numerous reports, medics stood on the roof of their flooded ambulances for hours in the Rockaways, unable to get to victims. In Breezy Point, where more than a hundred houses burned and another 2,000 were flooded, firefighters had to wait until waters receded because their pumpers couldn’t operate in deep water.

Chief Seelig told NY City Lens that the main responders for an event like Sandy are FDNY Special Operations. “We are better equipped,” he said. During the storm, his team deployed eight Swiftwater Rescue Teams, each consisting of six firefighters, an officer, and two inflatable boats. But the widespread impact of Sandy meant that first responders from other units got involved: regular firefighters were venturing out into the high waters in plain uniform; retired officers were going to streets to help out. Special Operations Swiftwater teams had appropriate gear, but they only had enough for themselves.

“Events like Sandy really illustrate the importance of equipment, and the significance of being well-equipped,” said Tiffany C. Smythe, a postdoctoral fellow in maritime policy at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. “Dry suits are especially important for wet-weather rescue operations. They are not just for diving!”

After the storm passed, the FDNY announced plans to spend more than $6 million on water-related equipment and training. According to Elisheva Zakheim, a FDNY spokesperson, the biggest procurements based on assessment needs following Sandy include:

· Six high-axle 2.5-ton vehicles meant for delivering personnel and equipment to severely impacted areas, as well as for evacuating civilian populations. The department had none before Sandy.

· Two movable Emergency Medical Services stations (medical tents) to be located in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

· Forty small boats intended for operating in flooded city streets, with pumps capable of moving more than 550 gallons of water per minute

· One 13-foot long Swiftwater Rescue Pod to carry equipment such as inflatable rafts, rope packs, and various tools.

The FDNY has always been involved in water-related emergencies, with three Marine Operations units stationed in New York City. But they were not the primary responders during Hurricane Sandy, in part because their large vessels—bought after 9/11—weren’t adequate for search and rescue missions in flooded city streets, said Chief Seelig.

While recent investments are aimed at rescue operations further inland and on flooded city streets, they are also needed to replace equipment damaged during Sandy.

“The onslaught of the storm was a lot tougher than I thought it would be,” Chief Robert Maynes, Queens Borough Commander, told the Rockaway newspaper The Wave. “Almost every unit sustained damage. Every piece of equipment we had went under water.

“You never visualize multiple pieces of your apparatus being disabled all at the same time, which significantly reduces your department’s ability to answer requests for help,” wrote Bill Hopson, deputy fire marshal in Ocean County, NJ, in Fire Engineering.

Smythe says FDNY equipment purchases are “quite reasonable,” but suggests the need to consider “infrastructure investments” as well. Sandy flooded and severely damaged many city buildings—including fire stations. Infrastructure investments to prepare for future floods and storm events could include “improvements to waterfront buildings, piers” Smythe said, “and perhaps also identification of other inland buildings, that will not be vulnerable to flooding, that can be used for equipment storage.”

The government’s report on climate change also mentions the need for investment in infrastructure, which is “increasingly compromised by climate-related hazards, including sea level rise, coastal flooding, and intense precipitation events.”

Is the city ready, at least in terms of rescue work? According to Seelig, the fire department’s equipment needs have been addressed “to some extent.”

More officers are now undergoing specialized training, he said, including Department of Homeland Security-sponsored Wide Area Search Classes, additional water rescue training, and advanced courses in structural collapse response. “We’re sending firefighters to Florida and South Carolina to learn how to handle small boats in strong currents,” said Seelig. “We’ve pretty much done as much as we can. Of course, we could always use more people,” said Seelig.

The official hurricane season gets underway on June 1.