A mix of ice and snow on Feb. 14, 2007, caused accidents that blocked more than 150 miles on three interstate highways in central Pennsylvania, stranding hundreds of truckers and motorists for more than 20 hours.
State police and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) employees were overwhelmed, and the gravity of the situation wasn't relayed to the State Emergency Operations Center quickly enough. In fact, the state police commissioner only heard about the situation from a Cabinet member stranded in his car. The Pennsylvania National Guard eventually was activated to provide food, water, blankets and gas to motorists.
After the storm, the Pennsylvania Senate set up a Web site so travelers could describe their experiences. The site collected more than 1,300 pages of comments from angry, frustrated people stuck in the storm. Most talked of being out on the highway all night, and the absence of state police and PennDOT officials.
At a Feb. 16, 2007, press conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell was forced to offer the blunt assessment that the state's emergency management response to the Valentine's Day snowstorm had been "totally unacceptable."
Rendell apologized for a "total breakdown in communications" among state agencies. He ordered an independent investigation by James Lee Witt Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based firm - headed by James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency - specializing in emergency management.
The Witt Associates investigation and the Rendell administration's response to its recommendations provide a detailed view of the communications shortcomings of the state's emergency management infrastructure. Despite the pain the disaster caused, it could provide the impetus for real improvement in the Keystone State's emergency management response capability.
Joe Martz, the state's secretary of administration and Rendell's point man on the issue, said one key to the turnaround would be improving communications among agencies. "When we are in the emergency operations center together, the communication works well," he said. "It's when we are all in our own agency silos that it doesn't flow as well."
The structural problems that became obvious in the storm's wake didn't appear overnight, said Charlie Fisher, Witt's project manager of the Pennsylvania storm report. "Long before the event itself, actions or inactions by state agencies laid the groundwork for the problem," he noted. "Then in the response, there were a lot of communication issues, with inaccurate information being relayed."
For instance, communication from regional PennDOT officials to state headquarters was inadequate. One explanation is that many of the PennDOT officials responsible were dealing with their first major storm. In Berks County, for example, the entire PennDOT management team was new, following the former team's retirement in January.
There were failures in technology and customer service, the report noted. For instance, the state's Road Weather Information System hadn't been maintained. Designed to improve awareness of road conditions, the sensor system had fewer than 20 of 74 sensor sites operational statewide when the storm hit. Many had been down since the previous summer. In different levels of the organization, people were aware that the sensors weren't working, Fisher noted, but PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler didn't know it.
Fisher also said customer information systems weren't given a high enough priority. Some electronic highway signs weren't working or updated during the event. The messages on highway phone information lines weren't updated, and the Web site provided outdated information. "There is an overall attitude problem about customer service and communications," Fisher said.
The Witt report asserted that state police handled individual accident scenes well, but there was no overall incident command at the regional or state level. The agency lacked situational awareness because information about what was happening didn't flow well - either vertically or horizontally - throughout the organization.
The report levels some criticism at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) for not elevating the State Emergency Operations Center's activation level to Level 3 soon enough. Its policy of waiting to receive calls for assistance before raising the level is a problem, Fisher explained, because only Level 3 requires agency liaisons with information about their employees' needs to come in to the operations center.
The storm response pointed out weaknesses in the state's work to implement the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Incident Management System (NIMS). "They had done some training in NIMS, but it really wasn't being adopted," Fisher stressed. "They weren't living it."
Fisher said some executives interviewed didn't know the four levels of emergency activation and weren't sure if they'd be contacted in an emergency. Others weren't clear on the division of responsibilities between PEMA and their agencies during an emergency.
Witt recommended that throughout the state, there must be much more planning in terms of emergency management processes. "The senior managers of PennDOT don't know their peers at the state police or PEMA," Fisher said. "They have to know each other and work on planning together. You don't want to meet your fire chief when your building is burning down."
Fixing the Problems
With the negative publicity immediately following the storm, state officials could have become discouraged and defensive. But Martz said Rendell and other state officials are determined to fix the systemic problems highlighted by the Witt report, released in late March. "The governor accepted the report's findings," Martz said, "and with that acceptance comes the commitment to follow through on its recommendations."
Rendell followed the Witt team's suggestions for improvements, and gave agency heads deadlines to implement changes or report timelines for project completion.
Among the changes under way:
It may take another emergency or this winter's storm season before the public can gauge whether the state's emergency management communications framework has improved. But Martz plans to file several follow-up progress reports to the governor and make those reports available to the Legislature. The state may hold hearings to ensure that these changes have been made.
Martz admits that reports following previous emergencies had highlighted many of the same issues that hampered the state's response to the Valentine's Day storm.
When a problem was identified in those reports, it was handled by telling the relevant department to fix the problem, he said.
"Instead, we should have put a team together to see what resources they needed to make it happen and ensure it was fixed," Martz said. "That type of follow-through was the missing piece, and that's what we're doing now."