July 11, 2023

A month after skies in New York City and across the East Coast were tinted orange with air pollution as a result of Canadian wildfire smoke, Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams released 'Orange Sky, Red Alert: A Review of Air Quality Emergencies in NYC.’ The report presents a series of recommendations to better prepare for future emergencies and protect New Yorkers from harmful air quality. This analysis comes as the City Council will hold an oversight hearing Wednesday on the city’s response to the June incident.

“Last month, a climate crisis overtook our city – and most New Yorkers were only aware of the hazard after the sky was orange and the air thick with smoke. Even as it was occurring, many had only a hazy understanding of the hazard,” said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams in releasing the report. “We had knowledge about this danger days in advance, but not the infrastructure to get that information to New Yorkers, or to quickly adapt and protect people from these hazardous conditions. Those orange skies should be a red alert about our city’s systems and readiness for future air quality emergencies. This review presents clear guidelines and common sense precautions we can put in place now to better share information and resources so that next time, our government’s response is not clouded by uncertainty or inaction.”

'Orange Sky, Red Alert' finds shortcomings in the city’s response to the air quality emergency, and particularly with the speed and scope of public notification and harm mitigation efforts. It notes that while some alerts about potential air quality concerns were available in the days prior to the worst of the crisis, the information about health risks was neither comprehensive nor circulated widely. Additionally, measures such as the postponing of outdoor activities and the shift to remote education were announced long after the crisis was underway, rather than sufficiently in advance or shortly after the crisis started, given the warnings and risk.

During each wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that our public notification procedures and crisis response times in the face of threats to public health were insufficient. This episode, the review argues, demonstrates that we have yet to fully adapt our systems based on the lessons learned.

After collaborating with officials from areas that experience more frequently detrimental air quality including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego, and Seattle, and in anticipation of future air quality emergencies, the Office of the Public Advocate now recommends new policies, strategies, and systems including:

  • Establishing a robust notification system for the public to take precautions
    • Systems can be based on existing notification models like the AMBER alert for automatic push notifications via television, radio, phone, etc.
    • Notify NYC Alerts should be updated with additional information detailing AQI scale and how each category impacts the population, and what steps the public can take. 
  • Setting AQI standards for NYC schools to operate remotely
    • If AQI levels exceed 150—indicating that the air quality is ‘unhealthy’ to all—New York City public schools should operate remotely, based on existing precedent and the DOE policy for remote ‘snow days.’
    • The DOE should upgrade HVAC systems, air filters, and carbon dioxide monitors in schools
    • Students and municipal employees should be provided KN95 or N95 masks amid high AQI
  • Providing worker protections against high AQI hazards 
    • Similar to schools, where possible, municipal workers should work remotely if AQI is over 150
    • The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) must update existing protections for workers to allow for paid sick leave and time off when necessary, hazard pay in certain circumstances, and measures to avoid prolonged exposure
  • The City should create ‘Clean Air Centers’ in Public Buildings during high AQI
    • In addition to improved air quality inside, centers should be prepared to provide members of the public with the appropriate KN95 or N95 masks. 
    • New Yorkers should be informed about how to create clean air rooms at home
  • Creating air quality infrastructure in the city and state 
    • New York State should create a regulatory air quality board and/or agency
    • NYC Emergency Management must update the Hazard Mitigation Plan and create an emergency operations plan for wildfire smoke
    • NYC Emergency Management should establish an ‘Air Quality Information Officer’ position
  • Engaging the public on air quality awareness
    • Create an Air Quality Day of Action for information and resource sharing
    • Creating a ‘citizen’s network’ of air monitoring systems to track air quality throughout the city at different elevations and in different neighborhoods
  • Funding a scientific report on  outdoor air quality in relation to urban infrastructure

Read the full review and recommendations here.


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