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N.Y. county begins to prepare ATV, UTV drivers for next emergency

Approximately $25,000 has been budgeted to give vehicle training to first responders


A new report finds several shortcomings in Buffalo’s response to a historic December 2022 blizzard in which 31 city residents died.

AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File

By Sandra Tan
The Buffalo News

ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. — The December blizzard made clear that regular rescue cars and trucks have serious drawbacks in a major winter storm.

So Erie County is ramping up training efforts to get more first responders trained on all-terrain vehicles and utility task vehicles — ATVs and UTVs. It has also been renewing focus on the county’s capacity to mobilize non-traditional vehicle fleets, both public and private, when future storm emergencies occur.

About $25,000 has been allocated this year for the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services for that purpose. That money will go to an outside company to provide training to more first responders and other agencies, such as utility companies, on safe ATV and UTV use.

Unlike regular trainings, these intensive, week-long sessions are meant to develop a new crop of trainers, who can then conduct more local training sessions for regular users.

Meanwhile, Erie County legislators say they want a more comprehensive update from county departments on future winter emergency preparedness, in light of the shortfalls seen in December. Public Safety Committee Chairman Howard Johnson, D-Buffalo, said he plans to convene such a meeting in October or November to make sure everyone is “reading off the same sheet of music.”

He also said that asking how departments have improved upon weaknesses cited in the county’s post-blizzard reports may be part of that process.

[RELATED: Report – Communication failures left Buffalo unprepared for fatal blizzard]

Minority Leader John Mills, R-Orchard Park, said October would be the best time to get an update on where emergency preparedness efforts stand.

“There’s got to be benchmarks,” he said.

Daniel Neaverth, commissioner of the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, said more than 150 first responders have received ATV/UTV training through the county. UTVs are larger than regular ATVs, have enclosed cabin space, and are better equipped to handle passengers or haul heavy loads. The county UTV vehicles purchased are also more likely to have track capabilities, like the kinds seen on tanks.

While the county has been offering ATV and UTV training for some time, he said, the need for more training sessions to meet increased demand is the result of December blizzard that resulted in 47 deaths. Since then, many local government agencies, including Erie County, have purchased non-traditional vehicles better equipped to deal with heavy snowfalls.

The county and the Erie County Snowmobile Federation, which represents 10 snowmobile clubs and about 3,000 members, have reached an agreement to coordinate so that major pieces of snow-grooming and snow-moving equipment used by the private clubs can be strategically placed and ready to go into action prior to the next major snow emergency. The agreement is also designed to protect the county against liability.

An official, legal agreement has not been signed, resulting in some criticism about foot dragging, but Neaverth said he is sure that one will be signed soon.

Developing a roster of private snowmobile owners, who would volunteer to assist with rescue efforts, is a much taller order, Neaverth said.

“That is Phase Two, but we have to figure out what is the best way of doing that,” he said.

On Thursday, the Public Safety Committee approved spending $8,000 to contract with the ATV Safety Institute to offer a weeklong training for prospective future trainers. That training requires participants to pass an initial written test, participate in a week of hands-on boot camp, then pass a challenging post-course test to be certified as instructors. So far, the training has been extended to members of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office; other city and town fire and police agencies; the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority; and utility agencies such as National Fuel, Neaverth said.

Mills said he thinks legislators deserve a more comprehensive understanding of what work the county has undertaken to prevent future loss of life in winter weather-related disasters.

He noted that severe, life-threatening winter storms are coming closer together and are no longer once-in-a-generation.

Neaverth said he looks forward to the county having the opportunity share what has been done.

“There’s not a day that’s gone by, since last winter, that we haven’t worked on new programs or tried to improve the programs we have,” he said. “There’s certainly nothing to hide here. There’s a lot of great that work that deserves to be highlighted.”

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