Thursday, February 3, 2011

Woodhaven Hopes to Melt Frozen Emergency Communications

By David J. Harvey

With record levels of snowfall in January, the city has struggled to coordinate street plowing, garbage pick-up and parking issues. Meanwhile, the web of complaints to Sanit tion during the snowstorms hasn’t seemed to have much impact—prompting one community group to try and streamline city-wide emergency reporting.

Trash continues to stagnate and many streets in Queens are still suffering diminished parking capacity. Piles of snow separat- ing streets and sidewalks impede deliveries, including those of heating oil, and block the view of drivers at intersections.

“On the corners you see mountains of snow and you can’t see past those corners, you’re going into the street blind,” Howie Kamp, of the Ozone Park Civic Association, said.

Local civic leader Tony Nunziato said he’s seen city workers plowing already clear streets and truck drivers taking side streets to avoid snow only to find themselves stuck.

“Once you don’t do something right, then it spreads.” Nunziato said. “When one thing fails, it just continues.”

Residents reporting snow issues in their neighborhoods can call 311, their local community groups, the local Community Board office or elected officials. All of those groups report to each other, as well as to the Mayor’s office and to the local Sanitation Department office.

Ed Wendell, president of the Woodhaven Residents Block Association, said even with all the avenues for reporting snow conditions, the city seemed overwhelmed.

“Problems were being reported to our elected officials, to the Mayor’s office, to our Community Board, and each one in turn was telling us they were reported to Sanitation, but it just didn’t seem to be getting done.”

So while the snow piled up, the WRBA began an effort to decongest the complaint pipeline to Sanitation.

After the first snowstorm in December, the WRBA revived the old tradition of “Block Captains” to help compile reports about conditions in the neighborhood. Wendell said he wanted to find a way to get a comprehensive report using a grassroots network.

“After the Christmas storm, a lot of people were blasting the city saying, ‘hey we were forgotten,’” Wendell said. “We wanted to take a different approach.”

The WRBA began using Facebook and Twitter to reach residents, but Wendell said this approach was too sporadic. He decided to use residents on each street to help the WRBA report conditions to Community Board 9 and the area’s two elected city officials, Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village).

“If [the block captains] can go out on their porch and look up and down their street they can tell us what conditions are, not just in a snowstorm.” Wendell said. “In a state of emergency we can put together some real comprehensive information telling them, ‘here, these are the conditions on the ground.’”

Despite high hopes for the network, Wendell said the city is still slow to respond.

During the last January storm, which ended early Thursday morning, Wendell collected reports from his captains and sent out a report before noon. By 4 p.m., the majority of streets had not been touched. He reported conditions again, leaving out plowed streets. On Friday, 16 roads were still unplowed.

“We’re reporting this information but I don’t think they’re very good at doing follow
ups,” Wendell said. “I don’t think Sanitation is very good at giving us any metrics on what’s been plowed or not.”

“They have no idea what they touch and what they don’t,” he added.

The Sanitation Department has announced plans to outfit every plow with a radio to improve communication, and Wendell said Mayor Bloomberg’s office had expressed interest in the WRBA’s Block Captain system. Wendell said he worries that the city is overwhelmed, and hopes to see the Block Captain approach catch on.

“If our elected officials are swamped with calls, I can only imagine how Sanitation is,” Wendell said.

By the end of January, the WRBA had 25 percent of Woodhaven streets covered by Block Captains. Wendell said the WRBA will continue signing up captains until it has 100 percent of the neighborhood covered.

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