The announcement by Governor Deval Patrick to close all vehicular traffic at 4 p.m. is a smart response to a serious storm. That the penalty for violation could be up to a year of prison can only mean one thing: this is no joke. What is animating the seemingly harsh decision has much to do with convincing people to stay put which they should need no convincing to do, but to protect first responders who would be put in harm’s way should people ignore basic precautions. I’m all for it.
Let’s say someone goes for a Starbucks run in this weather. They get stranded in the snow or their car gets stuck in a snowbank. They call 911 because that is what anyone would do and expect to be saved. Local or state first responders will then be dispatched into this crazy weather, risking their lives just so that the victim could get their latte. Imagine, then, that a responder were to get hurt, hurt someone else or worse. There would be lawsuits against the driver who wanted that latte so, so bad. Chances are everyone would be represented by good lawyers, so there would be questions about whether the first responder was driving too fast, or hadn’t slept the night before, or whether – in the legalistic words – the rescuee was the proximite cause of the rescuer’s injuries or death. It would be ugly. And unnecessary. Because that latte wasn’t that important.
The one-year rule simply sets up a strict default: whatever the reason, whatever the cause, if you are on the roads after 4 p.m. you will suffer some penalty. The one year prison sentence won’t be utilized unless the conduct is so egregious, and has harmed people who only want to help, that it deserves punishment.
I am a big fan of this. I used to be in that bunker in Framingham at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency as Patrick’s homeland security adviser. I also worked the federal side as Assistant Secretary at DHS. I saw a lot of people do a lot of stupid things during emergencies: I could never tell if it was arrogance, youth or for a good laugh. It doesn’t matter.
In a role now as reflecting and writing on changes in preparedness and response, I have noticed a dramatic and healthy change in the “social contract” in emergency management: it is, in the end, a two way street. Now, our political leaders recognize that with citizenship comes responsibility. This was true during Hurricane Sandy when a series of political leaders – including Patrick – were equally heartfelt and harsh in their demands of people who should know better.
In this way, they can reserve limited public safety needs for those who are really in harm’s way and for those who often can’t help themselves, like the elderly, infirm or needy.
This will all be over soon. Until then, stay put . . . or else.