The City Council asked public safety officials Thursday night to draft a proposal for a new city parking ordinance for residents in weather-related emergencies.
After doing away with the city's annual winter parking ban last month, councilors are working with the police, fire and public services departments to hash out the details on an emergency notification system in place of the yearly ban. The new system would rely on blue lights and other means of notification the city has at its disposal to call for a temporary ban on on-street parking during winter storms or floods.
The council's Municipal Safety Committee met Thursday to review some of those options, but faced with the task of trying to determine all the public safety issues involved and the best enforcement policy, Councilor-at-Large Tom Gould suggested turning it over to the local experts to come up with a proposal for the council. Committee members agreed and hope to have an ordinance in place by September.
Of primary concern for councilors is plenty of advance notice of an impending ban to residents so they can move their cars and avoid getting ticketed or towed and not create obstacles for public safety vehicles.
Committee Chairman Michael Garabedian said the council's intent is not to burden the public with a loosely enforced parking regulation.
"We want to make sure that the public knows that when those blue lights go on, something's going to happen," Garabedian said.
"I want the streets to be clear for fire apparatus and emergency vehicles...but I want to do it fairly," said Anne Manning-Martin, asking how early residents would be notified and how much time they'd have to move their vehicles.
Deputy Police Chief Martin Cohan and Capt. John DeRosa said the blue lights could be activated and messages sent out through various channels 24 hours before a storm is expected to hit. That would still give plenty of lead time to adjust the emergency ban if the weather pattern changed.
Cars could be ticketed once snow began to fall and vehicles would start getting towed as the snowfall became heavy, DeRosa said -- the same could apply in a bad rain storm expected to cause flooding.
"We don't have to enforce as soon as the lights go on.," said Cohan. "We're looking for voluntary compliance...we don't want to tow anyone."
He said the city will have to look at parking options at municipal lots and perhaps partnering with churches or other community organizations that have larger parking areas.
DeRosa said the department now uses text messages and email alerts through Nixle, the 1640 AM radio station, Facebook, Twitter, news outlets and other radio stations, local cable access TV and automated phone messages if need be.
Cohan also noted that in reviewing the issue internally, the Police Department would like to look at all parking fines in the city, particularly numerous fees that are below state guidelines.
Violators of the parking ban, for instance, were only fined $10 -- relatively just a minor headache for many residents rather than a great incentive to park off the street.
Fire Chief Steven Pasdon said his main concern is that whatever system does go in place goes a long way toward ensuring compliance. If not, fire and police, and EMS services and plow trucks may likely be impeded in their jobs in some of the trickiest areas of the city to navigate now.
"There are streets in the East End that we can't get through now [at times]," said Pasdon, adding that many other streets, such as Paleologos, Harris and Fulton, are barely wide enough to accommodate a fire truck.
If cars are left in the street and the streets are not plowed curb-to-curb, that could delay the response time of firefighters and EMTs to medical emergencies, he said.
Cohan and DeRosa suggested specifically identifying other parking areas for those residents, who may not have available off-street parking where they live. Similar situations exist around the downtown.
In the event of a fire, Pasdon said, if cars are left in the street, he would not chastise firefighters for pushing them out of the way -- and with the fire truck if necessary -- to get to a building.
Pasdon said that however the ordinance is written it needs to include notice as early as possible to residents, consistency in enforcement and steep fines to for non-compliance.
"Ten dollars is not enough motivation to move a car," Pasdon said, to which Cohan and DeRosa agreed.
"The first time a person gets a ticket, the news will fly through the neighborhood," said DeRosa, but adding that a large-scale effort would be made to inform the public about the new ordinance beforehand.
Councilor-at-Large David Gravel agreed on the steep fines, saying that "whatever teeth we can put into it to make people not just blow it off" is crucial.
DeRosa and Cohan noted the comparative snow ordinances in place in Salem, Beverly and Lynn, which all use blue lights as well.
Salem calls a snow emergency when two or more inches are predicted and likewise the city utilizes a number of methods to spread the message. Beverly and Lynn have similar ordinances that just go into effect whenever snow or ice are forecasted.
Beverly also issued a $50 ticket as opposed to the $10 fine in Peabody for violation of the parking ban.
DeRosa noted that Beverly also maintains a 48-hour window from when the lights go on and are turned off again to allow time for plowing operations.
Ward 5 Councilor David Gamache also asked that the ordinance stipulate a uniform maximum towing fee across the city in these types of emergencies. DeRosa said the Police Department is working on that with towing operators for a new contract.