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:

  • Snowplow staffing: Responding to the shortage of snowplow drivers during the storm, Martz said the state met a July 1 deadline to ensure adequate permanent and temporary staffing.
  • Establish a management continuity plan: The retirement of key PennDOT personnel right before the storm should have been a red flag to the central administration to give more counseling and help, Martz said.
  • Fix roadway weather information system: The state now has 74 real-time sensor sites in operation. PennDOT is also creating a list of new technologies that might complement or replace the 10-year-old sensor technology.
  • Develop customer information plan: A plan to improve customer service wasn't in place by late May, but Martz said a work group has been created to develop it. One possibility is a 511 number the public could use to obtain relevant storm information.
  • Create a protocol for closing interstates and other state highways: Because they are such important routes to truckers, the state's interstates have rarely closed, Martz said. Nevertheless the state needed to develop a well documented protocol. PennDOT and PEMA worked together to create the protocol.
  • Update state emergency operations plan: Martz called this a huge project but said PEMA has a road map for updating it.
  • Implement NIMS in its totality: The Witt report found the state technically compliant with NIMS. "But it was mostly in word and not in deed," Martz said. "We are asking PEMA what is necessary to make NIMS part of the everyday culture, so that it is practiced every single day."
  • Develop state police notification protocols: The state police agency is developing written protocols to formalize the notification process to transmit information both vertically and horizontally in the organization.

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."

David Raths  |  contributing writer