By Carmo Moniz
The New York City Council committees on oversight and investigations, health & environmental protection and resiliency and waterfronts questioned city officials on their response to last month’s air quality emergency at a hearing Wednesday, with many politicians criticizing the timeliness and effectiveness of city agencies’ emergency communication.
In early June, New York City’s air quality index — which measures air quality on a scale from zero to 500 — rose to 460 due to smoke from Canadian wildfires, posing health risks to the public. Some councilmembers criticized officials for being slow to warn the public of the situation and being inconsistent in its emergency messaging.
“When smoke descended on New York last month, New Yorkers were shocked to see the sky blotted out and find the air was dangerous to breathe,” Councilmember Gale Brewer, who chairs the committee on oversight and investigations, said in the hearing. “They looked to state and local leaders for guidance during this unprecedented incident, however to many people it appeared that our local executives and agency chiefs had little advice to offer on how to stay safe or aid to provide.”
The council’s questions were mostly addressed to Office of Emergency Management commissioner Zachary Iscol, who defended the city’s response to the emergency. Iscol said that city agencies used Notify NYC, a citywide alert system, along with other avenues of communication to get information about the emergency to the public, distributed hundreds of thousands of masks and coordinated response efforts across agencies.
“We will continue to pivot and shift our response to ensure New Yorkers are best served and protected,” Iscol said. “That said, I am incredibly proud of our robust response.”
Iscol said that the city did the best it could with the air quality data it had available. He said that AQI forecasting is especially difficult for smoke, and that the information is only available less than 24 hours ahead of time from the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Iscol also said that forecasts did not project “hazardous” air quality levels, where the AQI is 301 or higher and the general public is “more likely to be affected” by pollution, until June 7, the first day Mayor Eric Adams held a press conference. He also said that public messaging around the crisis began June 1. While an air quality alert exists for June 1, it warns against poor air quality caused by Ozone rather than smoke pollution.
Lynn Schulman, a councilmember from Queens who chairs the committee on health, noted that the air quality emergency was a new challenge for the city and that city agencies had limited reliable air quality data to work with.
“We’re facing a new norm now, so the city did the best that it could do but we can always do better,” Shulman said in an interview.
Samantha Penta, an associate professor of emergency preparedness at the University at Albany, said that while the speed of public messaging in emergency situations is important, the accuracy and detail of the information should also be a priority.
“It wasn’t necessarily like New York City starting from scratch, they have a long history of emergency management and risk communication, but just because you have experience with it doesn’t mean it isn’t still an undertaking,” Penta said in an interview. “Inherently we’re talking about systems under stress and that always poses an additional challenge for the folks whose job it is to help people survive those moments of stress.”
Councilwoman Jennifer Gutiérrez, who represents parts of Williamsburg, Bushwick and Ridgewood, asked what would be done for communities living near manufacturing areas with already lower air quality in an emergency, such as in North Brooklyn.
Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Deputy Commissioner for Environmental Health Corinne Schiff said that the agency will be sharing the public recommendations made during the emergency on its website, and that it worked with community and faith centered organizations to share information.
“We know that these burdens are not distributed equally throughout the city,” Schiff said. “We were, all of our agencies including the health department, messaging to communities that are disproportionately burdened by air quality and conditions like asthma, we were doing outreach to those communities and we’re going to continue to do that.”
A committee report created prior to the hearing included recommendations for how to handle future air quality emergencies from press outlets and public experts, including providing more advance notice of the emergencies and using subway system announcements and police car loudspeakers to alert the public. They also recommended issuing a Code Red warning, which is usually used in instances of dangerous heat, so that outreach workers can help get homeless individuals into shelters.
Lincoln Restler, who represents parts of North Brooklyn, said that the California government sets up public clean air centers in air quality emergencies, and criticized Iscol for not implementing a similar system or calling a Code Red.
Iscol said that Department of Social Services outreach teams were deployed to encourage homeless people to enter shelters and hand out masks during the emergency, similarly to in a Code Red. He said that a Code Red includes heat emergency specific protocols, such as sending out cooling buses and distributing sunscreen, that would not make sense in an air quality emergency.
“The most important thing during an event like this is taking care of our city’s most vulnerable, and we did that,” Iscol said.
“I disagree,” Restler said in response.
A day after the hearing, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and Councilman Keith Powers announced a package of new legislation addressing indoor air quality in schools and municipal buildings at a press conference.
The first of the four bills would require the Department of Education to update the standards of regulation for indoor air quality in public schools, and another similar bill was proposed for city owned buildings. The other two bills would create five-year pilot programs for monitoring air quality in other buildings, one for commercial buildings and another for residential buildings.
Schulman, who is a sponsor of the new legislation, said that the bills will help provide the public with air quality education and improve air quality in schools and public buildings.
“We have these wildfires that are proliferating around the globe, and they’re creating dynamics where it creates unhealthy air quality for people that breathe it in,” Schulman said. “It’s important now to be on top of that and have legislation that will help to enhance air quality moving forward.”
The legislation has been in progress for almost a year, but became more urgent due to the recent air quality crisis. Councilmembers Pierina Sanchez, Rita Joseph and Mercedes Narcisse also helped sponsor the package.
“When we came out and saw our sky was orange, it was a panicked time for us, wondering what was going on,” Narcisse, who represents parts of South Brooklyn and chairs the committee on hospitals, said at the press conference. “The air we breathe is so important, so we’re going to continue to hold those accountable to make sure we have the best air quality inside of school buildings, inside of hospitals, inside of offices and wherever we are.”