HARRISBURG – The chairs of the Senate Transportation Committee and the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee today announced that public hearings will be held on implementing recommendations of a report on the Rendell administration’s response to the Valentine’s Day storm.
The report, issued by James Lee Witt Associates of Washington D.C., at a cost of $130,000, plus an additional $20,000 for expenses, evaluated the performance of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, State Police, Department of Transportation, and the National Guard during February’s snow and ice event. The storm stranded hundreds of motorists on I-78, I-81, and I-80 for up to 20 hours in sub-freezing temperatures.
The Witt Report offered stinging criticisms of Pennsylvania’s emergency preparedness. “The commonwealth government has not fully adopted emergency management as a core principal and cultural priority,” according to the report’s executive summary. “There is a remarkable lack of awareness and understanding of Pennsylvania’s emergency management system, including the emergency alert levels, even among senior agency leaders.”
Senator Roger Madigan (R-Bradford) and Senator Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne) commended Mr. Witt for offering an informed look at Pennsylvania’s storm response and state of emergency preparedness.
“In many respects, the Witt report confirmed the conclusions which the committees reached after reviewing the testimony offered by the Secretary of Transportation, State Police Commissioner, Adjutant General, and Director of PEMA following the Senate hearing,” Madigan said.
The Senate hearing, held a week after the February 14-15 storm, identified communication breakdowns, a failure to fully implement the state’s emergency policies and protocols, and significant intra- and interagency coordination problems.
Baker, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, added that the Witt Report faulted the Commonwealth for not adopting emergency management as a core principle, and found a lack of awareness among all levels of the state’s system.
“It’s time for the Rendell administration to demonstrate engaged leadership and to embrace emergency management as a core service of government. This is not something that we can hope to get right the next time,” Baker said. “It’s unacceptable, in a post-9/11 world, for the leaders of our public safety agencies to remain, as Witt noted, ‘remarkably unaware of emergency management systems, [policies], and alert levels.'”
The Senate received nearly 1,000 emails from individuals impacted by the storm, including many who were trapped in their cars with no food or water, many of who provided constructive criticism and suggestions for improving Pennsylvania’s emergency response. Information from these responses was provided to Witt and Associates under a confidentiality provision so that the detailed accounts of stranded motorists could be included in the record.
Madigan, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, lauded Witt’s recommendation for PennDOT’s immediate development of traffic diversion plans along primary interstates and state highways, and to immediately update communication procedures and information technology.
Baker believes that the report should compel the administration to take a hard look at the policy and budgeting decisions that appear to have impacted communications, staffing, and resource shortfalls at PEMA, State Police, and PennDOT. “If costs are being cut at the expense of public safety, then these polices need to be changed,” she said.
Beginning in April, the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee and State Government Committee will hold joint hearings to receive input on legislation to establish the Department of Public Safety and to improve local emergency services. The Senate Transportation and Emergency Preparedness committees plan to hold further joint hearings this summer to ensure that state government agencies are making appropriate progress in implementing the recommended action steps.
This week, the Senate approved legislation introduced by Senator Baker, which would make the Director of PEMA a confirmable position. Currently, the Secretary of Transportation, Commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police and Adjutant General of Veterans Affairs are confirmed by the Senate. That legislation now moves to the House for consideration.
Lee Ann Labecki (Sen. Baker)
Craig Shuey (Sen. Madigan)