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VOLUNTEERING — PEF member Jason Bennett, at left, responds to a car caught in a flood. Bennett is a member of the Oriskany Technical Team Emergency Rescue Swimmers (OTTERS) and recently assisted with flooding in Herkimer County.

PEF members from multiple agencies assist with Halloween storm response

By KATE MOSTACCIO

Record rainfall and high winds Halloween night into the following day led to serious flooding in a number of New York municipalities, knocking out power and washing out roads and bridges. PEF members from multiple agencies responded to calls for swift water rescue, road damage, and government building flooding.

“A large swath of rainfall totaling 2 to 5 inches occurred over the Mohawk Valley and southern Adirondacks, resulting in reports of flash flooding,” according to the National Weather Service. “The runoff caused rapid rises on area creeks and streams, with four river gauges reaching record levels. The flooding was extensive over portions of the area, damaging numerous roads and structures and resulting in water rescues. There was one fatality as a result of the flooding.”

Fire protection specialists

In Dolgeville, Herkimer County, the East Canada Creek surged over its banks, flooding Main Street and flowing into some residences, prompting swift water rescues. PEF fire protection specialists from the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services’ Office of Fire Prevention and Control were on scene to bring residents to safety.

ROAD DAMAGE — DOT PEF members volunteered to perform damage assessments following the flooding on Halloween.

Members of NYS Task Force 2 worked with local responders and pulled members of a family from their flooded home, including a young child. They also saved the family’s dog. A video of the rescue has made rounds on social media.

“We got flagged down for that rescue,” said PEF member Chris Johnson, a fire protection specialist 1. “They had originally asked to use our high-axle vehicle, but we didn’t think we could do something like that because of the danger.”

Instead, they bought in a motorized rescue boat and put their training to use.

“We had an incredible amount of current in the backyard,” Johnson said. “We thought originally we’d try to wait it out. It wasn’t until the occupants of the home said they were going to try to swim out that we went in.”

If the residents, or even rescuers, had attempted to cross the backyard flooding by swimming it would have ended badly, Johnson said.

“If anyone had gone in the water there was a good chance they would not have made it out,” he said.

For the rescuers, putting their skills to work is rewarding.

“We all did this because this is a job we love to do and we love helping people out,” Johnson said. “I don’t think everyone out there gives themselves enough credit. We sometimes forget about the risks. But for the outcome in Dolgeville and throughout the Mohawk Valley, it was absolutely, 100 percent, worth it.”

Familiar faces joined the PEF fire protection specialists.

“There were a lot of familiar faces going through from the training and other responses we had done,” Johnson said. “State Police, DEC, we have a great connection and do a lot of training together. It’s helpful, especially in an incident like this.”

Agency cooperation was crucial to successful rescues.

“All the different agencies working together, getting the job done, is incredibly rewarding,” Johnson said. “It’s something we train for and we’re happy and glad we do even though we hope we never have to use it.”

In addition to the family pulled from the flooded home, State Fire members helped evacuate trailer parks and aided a woman and her dog in the town of Schuyler, who had become trapped in a vehicle.

“I think it’s an incredible feeling,” Johnson said of being able to help the communities. “I’m sure everybody who was there had the exact same feeling, knowing that we made a difference. It’s indescribable.”

Department of Transportation (DOT)

When Greg Beach, an assistant engineer with DOT’s Region 4, Rochester, saw the email looking for damage assessment volunteers to travel to hard-hit areas of flooding the day after Halloween — he jumped at the chance to help.

FLOODED OUT — PEF member fire protection specialists and DOT employees responded to flooding in Central New York on Halloween.

Region 2 had already worked on assessing the state roads. “We did the local, county and town roads,” Beach said. “We drive every road and look for damage.” When they find a location, they take photos and note the GPS coordinates and this information is loaded by iPad into a database.

If you’ve ever used 511NY, you’ve benefited from damage assessments done by DOT personnel. The service will tell users which roads are closed or when there are lane closures.

“We have our normal assignments, but this is above and beyond,” Beach said. “They first reach out to us for volunteers. For me, I’m out of Rochester, so I was two and a half hours away. I spent the night and worked most of Saturday.”

For Beach, this was the first opportunity he had to volunteer in this capacity.

“We’re gone through a lot of training,” he said. Six members from Beach’s region volunteered to travel to Herkimer County. “We paired up as assessment teams.”

Seeing the damage first-hand hit home.

“You see flooding on TV,” Beach said. “You just say, ‘Wow, that’s bad.’ When you’re there, seeing it first hand, it hits a little harder.

“When we pull up in a state vehicle, people are excited to see us,” he continued. “We have to explain to them we are out there for damage assessment and we can’t tell them when things will be fixed. But, it feels pretty good to help out. It was a good experience and I’m glad I was able to help.”

Fellow DOT member, Scott Martin, a senior engineering technician in DOT’s Geotechnical department, also assisted with damage assessments in the Utica area — above and beyond his typical assignments running graduation or compaction tests and preparing boring logs from DOT drillers.

“Knowing we provide vital services to communities feels good,” said Martin, a PEF member for three years. “It’s nice to be able to help other regions.”

Office of Information Technology Services (ITS)

PEF member Jason Bennett, an Information Technology Specialist 2 with the state Office of Information Technology Services (ITS), still showed up for work after spending Halloween trick-or-treating with his family, then attending a Halloween gathering at the Oriskany Volunteer Fire Department — where he is an active volunteer firefighter — and finally spending hours responding to the storm with his fellow firefighters.

ROAD DAMAGE — DOT PEF members volunteered to perform damage assessments following the flooding on Halloween.

“He got a call to help deal with the flooding in the Utica area,” said fellow PEF ITS member Jim Jaskula, an Information Technology Specialist 3 in Syracuse. “He was out all night doing volunteer fire duty and he didn’t get home until 4 a.m. He didn’t have to come to work after, it’s in the contract, but he did.”

Bennett said he’d only made it home for an hour and a half Halloween night before he got called out for the weather. It quickly became apparent the rising water was going to be bad.

“A small babbling brook turned into a raging river,” Bennett said. In that instance, there were 70 to 80 residents living in a trailer park on the other side of the water — and some of them wanted out. “It took about an hour and a half,” he said. “The hardest thing was that people try to drive through the water. You can’t do that.”

Later that night, around 10:30, Bennett’s department was called to assist in a little village where more residents wanted to get out. But cars stuck in roads and impassable roadways made it very hard to navigate.

“The water was waist deep in places, if not higher,” Bennett said. “State Fire showed up and helped out.”

The Oriskany OTTERS (Oriskany Technical Team Emergency Rescue Swimmers), as they call themselves, are well suited to water rescues.

Bennett trained in swift water rescue at the State Fire Academy and he is state certified. In Whitesboro, flooding seems to happen “almost every other year,” he said. Having a training facility right in Oriskany Fire’s backyard is helpful. “We hope we don’t have to use it, but at least we’re trained.”

Bennett isn’t the only PEF member volunteering in his community with the local fire department.

Oriskany’s fire chief, Jeff Burkhart, is a PEF member who works for DHSES as a fire protection specialist. PEF member Charles “Bud” Koss, assistant fire chief, by day works for the Office of General Services as an assistant construction superintendent.

Bennett and fellow ITS PEF members were also in the right place at the right time when a union meeting they were attending in Utica happened to coincide with the storm and there was a need for ITS support in the state Department of Transportation’s Regional Operations Center.

“I received a text from our district manager that we were needed to assist the Utica DOT Regional Operations Center which was activated after we got to the meeting,” Jaskula said. “Jason Enoch is the ITS Central manager for Utica and he quickly responded to the NYSDOT ROC located in the Utica State Office Building. I cancelled the meeting and brought our entire staff up to assist DOT.”

He said damage was minimal, but ITS staff are on-call for situations like this one.

“There was only one minor issue with a laptop and we had backup equipment available,” Jaskula said. “In an emergency, it’s intense in the Regional Operations Center. They’re taking care of the flooding and the roads.”

Jaskula is proud to work for ITS. “I love ITS,” he said. “We’re getting more people out in the regions where we never had a career ladder. Now we do.”

Recognizing heroic efforts

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Director of Emergency Management Operations Michael Kopy, during a cabinet meeting, praised the efforts of the State Fire employees who responded quickly and put their lives on the line.

“Six people, including an infant child, were trapped in a building,” he said in a video. “The representatives from State Fire cut their way into the back of the property and took a Zodiac life raft, tied ropes, and risked their lives to save that family.

“I am certain that if any one of them had gone into the water last night, they would have died,” he continued. “It was truly a pleasure to see them work like that. We are thankful as New Yorkers to have people who are trained to that level and willing to risk their lives, so I thank them here today.”

Related story: OPWDD fire safety reps aid community following storms


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