Port Authority’s Ground Game: Preparing for Pope Francis and Other World Leaders

By Roz Hamlett, Portfolio Editor

Before the hem of Pope Francis’s Roman cassock ever brushes the tarmac at JFK International Airport, the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the Port Authority is activated.  Our game face is on.

Says Michael Spall, General Manager of the Port Authority Office of Emergency Management, “When we’re in full-swing during a full EOC activation, it’s a lot of moving parts acting in complete concert like a well-oiled machine.”

Others close to the action describe an activation as “a thing of beauty.” Something akin to the highly synchronized movements of a watch. Who knew emergency preparedness could be poetry in motion?

During an EOC activation, the trained personnel of the Port Authority’s Incident Command System (including Operations, Logistics, Planning, etc.) combine forces with our regional public safety partners – that’s everyone from the Chief Security Officer and the Port Authority Police Department to PATH, TB&T and WTC along with New York, New Jersey and NYC agency partners.

This united federation of eyes and ears at the Command Center provide a “10,000 foot view” of situational awareness to commanders on the ground in order to make strategic and expedited decisions during the Pope’s visit.

EOC will detect and respond to crowding situations on the ground, for example, resulting from the massive influx of people expected during the Pontiff’s visit.  For the Port Authority, this means gathering information from boots on the ground at JFK International, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, WTC and PATH.  Data and information from many different sources will be collected and assessed for decision makers in what is known to insiders as the “common operating picture.”

The Pope’s visit coincides with the annual United Nations General Assembly where 125 world leaders, including President Obama, will be in Manhattan this week. Traffic and transit delays and disruptions are inevitable, but proactive communication to the public about closed streets and frozen zones will be important so everyone knows what to expect.

Pope Francis will be arriving in the New York Metropolitan area from Washington, DC as part of a multi-city United States visit, marking the first visit of a Pope on U.S. soil since 2008.  He recently played an integral role in normalizing U.S. – Cuba relations through months of negotiations that ended the 54-year stretch of hostilities between the two nations.  In July 2015, embassies were established in both countries.

Pope Benedict XVI was the last Pope to visit the U.S. from April 15, 2008 to April 20, 2008, which included meetings with President George W. Bush, an address to the United Nations General Assembly, a visit to Ground Zero, and a mass for a crowd of 57,000 at Yankee Stadium.

The Port Authority strongly advises anyone planning to be in New York City between Thursday, September 24 and Saturday, September 26 to plan in advance.  Access to Pope Francis’s events are limited strictly to those  who received tickets.  Those without tickets should avoid those locations where the Pope is scheduled to visit. People who can avoid traveling into Manhattan on those days should do so, since many street closures near those locations will result in traffic congestion and pedestrian diversions.

Officials strongly urge the use of public transportation for the duration of the UN General Assembly. If you want to see the Pope, come by public transportation. If you don’t want to see the Pope, take a long weekend,” NYC Traffic Expert Sam Schwartz says.

Those who cannot avoid traveling into Manhattan during this time are encouraged to take mass transit. For those who will be taking PATH, using one of our bus terminals or Hudson crossings, please sign up for alerts to receive timely updates on delays and service changes.

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