BY TRONE DOWD
In a letter to the Department of Sanitation, Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) criticized the city agency’s assessment of their emergency response to winter storm Jonas in late January.
The councilman’s letter was done in direct response to the DOS release of the After Action Memo on April 27, which took a look at the response efforts following snowstorm Jonas. The nine-page report offered a number of ways the DOS could improve and adjust their effectiveness moving forward. Lancman however, was not impressed by what the report concluded.
“I’m writing to register my concern that the Department of Sanitation ‘After Action Memo’ evaluating the City’s response to the ‘Jonas’ blizzard ignores the serious flaws in the PlowNYC program which were widely documented and reported on at the time, and which were further brought to your attention at the Council Sanitation Committee’s hearing on the preliminary budget,” Lancman wrote.
As reported by the Queens Tribune last January, the DOS was significantly delayed when responding to the blizzard’s messy aftermath. With over 30 inches of snow recorded at John F. Kennedy Airport, Jonas quickly became the second most devastating blizzard in the history of the city. Many neighborhoods reported issues navigating roadways up to three days after the initial snowfall. The department’s newly released smartphone app PlowNYC also contributed to the winter confusion, often times incorrectly reporting certain streets were attended to when street cleaners had not yet done so. Lancman was one of the first elected officials to criticize the app back in January, calling the mishap “a truly cruel technological twist” in the New York Daily News.
“Many streets in my district and throughout the city were incorrectly reported by PlowNYC as recently plowed, as I relayed in real-time on my Twitter account and as reported,” Lancman said. “Your failure to explain these flaws at the hearing was deeply unsatisfactory, and the failure to acknowledge this problem at all in the After Action Memo is unacceptable”
As a part of the mayor’s $82.2 billion budget for the fiscal year announced just last week, he has allocated $21 million to improve city response to weather based emergencies like January’s snowstorm. Some of the new tools that the budget will afford is new, smaller snow removal equipment that will benefit drivers and pedestrians. However, none of the listed uses for the allocation include improvements to the PlowNYC app. It instead somewhat praises the app, which Lancman called out in his letter.
“Specifically, in evaluating PlowNYC and the Department’s internal GPS program, the Memo notes that these tools ‘proved critical for situational awareness … [and] allowed the department to more quickly identify areas in need and move additional equipment to meet it,’” Lancman wrote. “This conclusion does not comport with reality.”
The Queens Tribune reached out to the Sanitation Department and was able to obtain a letter written by Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia responding to Lancman. She said that she “appreciated the concern” from Lancman and reassured him that the app was helpful during the storm rather than hurtful.
“I assure you that the Department is continually working to improve PlowNYC and other GPS systems,” Garcia wrote. “In the two years since I became Commissioner, we have upgraded the tracking devices from simple flip phones to advanced automatic vehicle location transmitters, and we have worked with the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications to improve the backend systems that process and map the GPS signals received from snow equipment. If you would like, I am happy to host a demonstration at my office to show how PlowNYC works, how the Department uses this and other GPS information, and the improvements made over the past several years.”
Lancman told the Queens Tribune that he doesn’t quite understand the Department’s refusal to acknowledge reported issues with the app.
“Their denial of the problems that were demonstrably present during the snowstorm is really frustrating and worrisome,” Lancman said.
He compared their lack of recognition for “flaws in the system that were captured in screenshots across a number of publications” to climate change deniers.
Lancman said that he will take up Sanitation’s offer to show the technical side of how the PlowNYC app works, but will continue to press the department on acknowledging the recorded issues and how they plan to improve it.
Reach Trone Dowd at (718) 357-7400 x123, firstname.lastname@example.org or @theloniusly