It took more than two hours for snowplows to get to West Dodge Road during a snowstorm Tuesday — a wait that Mayor Jean Stothert called unacceptable as she backed off comments that she made about an Omaha police officer’s decision to close a stretch to westbound traffic.
In a statement issued Thursday, Stothert shifted blame from the single officer to a “breakdown in communication” between all departments regarding the choice to shut down the street.
Stothert said she reviewed 911 dispatch and Public Works records showing that snowplows arrived at West Dodge between 84th and 90th Streets more than two hours after the first request.
A city engineer took ownership of the situation, but he cited unexperienced foremen, out-of-service plows assigned to the area and a lack of communication.
“This is not an acceptable response,” Stothert’s statement said. The mayor said it’s her job “to fix it, and we will.”
Her final sentence in the five-paragraph statement praised on-duty officers who “provided excellent service to our citizens” — an about-face from three days ago when she spoke of the police officer who closed the road.
“I can’t say the decision by that officer was something that was well thought-out,” she said Tuesday.
Thursday’s statement came after the Omaha Police Officers Association, on its website Wednesday, called out Stothert for her comments and asked the public to stand with the officer.
John Wells, the president of the association, said Stothert took responsibility “in a roundabout way” and said she shouldn’t have made the remark without all the facts.
“She was pretty steadfast in her position, throwing the officer under the bus,” Wells said. “I’m glad she came around, but the whole exercise was unnecessary. ... It was misplaced blame.”
A timeline provided by a Douglas County 911 call center supervisor shows that the northwest dispatcher requested a snowplow at 10:36 a.m.
About an hour later, the officer on West Dodge Road responded to another officer’s offer of help.
“You don’t have a plow truck with salt and sand, do you?” asked the officer pushing cars up the hill, according to 911 dispatch archives.
At noon, street maintenance told the northwest dispatcher that three plows were en route.
As the officer waited, he told fellow officers offering assistance that they could help only by pushing stuck vehicles.
“Not to beat a dead horse, but a plow truck and sand would be my next best hope,” the officer said.
At about 12:50 p.m., officers on scene reported that the plows had arrived.
Westbound West Dodge between 84th and 90th Streets was closed for about an hour after 12:15 p.m.
Sgt. Stephen Martinez, supervisor of the officer who closed the road, wrote on Facebook that he was informed of the officer’s decision and applauded the choice.
“Not doing so would have resulted in further traffic backups and delays that would have stretched into much heavier traffic times,” he wrote.
Todd Pfitzer, the city engineer for the Public Works Department, said multiple problems led to the long delay.
Plows had cleared the area between 9:40 and 10 a.m., according to GPS records.
A district foreman, who is new this season, arrived at the scene at 11:10 a.m. to evaluate the need for plows and called for trucks immediately, Pfitzer said.
Yet at about 11:30 a.m., the two plows normally covering the route were nearly 4 miles away at a maintenance yard near 88th Street and Crown Point Avenue to refuel.
Pfitzer said the foreman “did the best he could” but should have called Pfitzer or the street maintenance engineer to notify plows from neighboring areas to resolve the problem quicker.
The inexperienced workers have met on Sundays and holidays to talk about the snow plan, Pfitzer said, but the possibility of shutting down a major street was never discussed.
“I’ll take ownership to improve our communication,” Pfitzer said.
In her statement, Stothert said she asked Public Works Director Bob Stubbe to re-evaluate the city’s snow-removal plan, which hasn’t been updated in almost a decade. Stothert and Pfitzer say they want to change procedures yet this season.
“We want this to be fixed before we get another snowfall to hit the ground in Omaha,” Pfitzer said. “We have to do better.”
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