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June 07, 2013
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Tom Burrell Patrolling the Waterways
with Tom Burrell

NYC report on Sandy is sunk from the start

The City of New York issued an after-action report on the response of marine units from NYPD and FDNY in the Hurricane Sandy — unfortunately, the report itself is not seaworthy

In early May 2013, the City of New York released its after-action report concerning the preparation for, response to, and clean up following Hurricane Sandy. This 67-page report addressed a wide range of topics — everything from the effectiveness of early warning systems to ongoing efforts at recovery.

As is to be expected from a short document which attempts to address a wide array of topics, the report is very general in how it approaches specific problems or shortcomings. For example, the topic of public safety is less than three pages in total length. 

However, it only took one paragraph to draw widespread attention from the maritime and water-rescue community.

“While NYPD was able to carry out its life-safety mission, some officers reported that their equipment was not well-suited for flood rescue operations. For example, NYPD patrol commands used flat-bottomed Jon Boats to conduct many rescues; because these boats do not have motors and require manual rowing or towing, they limit mobility and maneuverability in swift currents. Because these boats are metal, officers had to use extreme caution to avoid downed power lines. The FDNY and NYPD’s specialized units more successfully used inflatable boats, which have outboard motors that can operate with only 18 inches of draft and are made of nephron galvanized rubber that is easily decontaminated and patched. Inflatable boats are generally more maneuverable than Jon Boats, fold up for storage on a vehicle, and can be easily deployed.”

Within days of the report’s release, there were numerous blogs, posts to online discussion forums, and at least one article in a leading public safety publication proclaiming the NYPD were ill prepared for necessary rescue operations and forced to rely upon inadequate equipment. 

After all, that’s what the report says, right?

Wrong. 

What the report says is that “some officers reported that their equipment was not well-suited for flood rescue operations.”

The example provided to validate this claim is that patrol commands utilized metal, unpowered, Jon Boats not suited for operation in swift current or near downed power lines.  

While some may believe that the use of unpowered, flat bottom, metal boats is an example of being ill prepared, I believe this is an unfair indictment of the members of the NYPD and FDNY who successfully rescued over 2,200 citizens.

Sure, it would be nice to say that there was a brand new, shallow draft inflatable available to everyone who wanted one. But, just like many of the other tools of our trade, not everyone gets one and sometimes this is for good reason.

First, it would be logistically impossible to equip every patrol team in a department as large as the NYPD with an inflatable rescue boat. Especially when you take into consideration the regular preventative maintenance required for not only a rubber hull but also the motors.

Second, despite statements to the contrary, inflatable boats of the size & design best suited for rescue operation are able to be stored folded in patrol vehicle trunks for easy deployment. The addition of an outboard motor would make this impossible in all but the largest sedans or SUVs.

Third, inflatable boats with outboard motors are not the answer to every rescue operation.  Although more maneuverable and better suited for swift current, they are unable to be dragged over, or sometimes even through, debris.

Fourth, and many would argue most important, although highly maneuverable and suited for swift current these boats that the report suggests should be in every trunk require at least a moderate level of training. While these boats performed well for the specially trained and equipped members of the NYPD and FDNY rescue teams they may have presented a hurdle, or even a danger, to the average patrol officer pushed into rescue duty.

By the time you read this, it’s possible that this report will be a memory for most — and the media and skeptics will likely have moved on to critiquing the next disaster, mass shooting, or police chase. 

However, I feel it is important to point out that the men and women of the NYPD and FDNY responded to Hurricane Sandy in a manner that is not only a credit to their agencies but to themselves as well. 

There is no doubt that at the same time many of them were braving one of the worst storm in history to save strangers their own families were nervously awaiting their own rescue hoping their life’s possessions did not disappear with the tide.


About the author

Tom Burrell began his career in maritime enforcement in 1992 when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, following his service in the USMC Reserves during Desert Storm. He would see service in Key West, (Fla.) Norfolk, Va., and New York City, both afloat and ashore with duties which ranged from drug and alien interdiction to recreational boating safety. During this time he would serve in a variety of positions including boarding team member, boarding officer, boat crew, coxswain, and master helmsman. Achievements include Coxswain “C” School Honor Graduate, numerous Humanitarian Service awards and involvement in several high profile joint operations — including the security for JFK International Airport during the United Nations 50th Anniversary.

In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission as a Waterways Conservation Officer, a position which would include posting in both the rural north central region, and later in suburban Philadelphia. In 2002 he was promoted to patrol supervisor for the South Central Region and received the PA DUI Association “Top Gun” Award for his efforts in apprehending boaters who were under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance. Tom is currently a Captain assigned to Headquarters. He is also an instructor in the areas of firearms, hand gun retention, handcuffing, OC spray, First Aid & CPR, and Boating Under the Influence Detection/Apprehension.

In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University. In 2007 and 2008 he was granted the opportunity to address the Northeast Association of Criminal Justice Sciences, during their annual conference at Roger William’s University in Bristol (R.I.), concerning the unique search and seizure authority of conservation officers. When not working or going to school Tom enjoys hunting and fishing near his home in south central Pennsylvania and spending time with his wife Amy, daughters Paige and Johanna, and son Ben.





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