-- It's New Year's cleanup in the Big Apple.
As millions of television viewers around the world can attest, the start of the New Year is celebrated in a big way in the Big Apple. Under the supervision of 5,000 police officers, half a million people crowd together into an area measuring 4 blocks wide and 18 blocks long. As they wait for the giant silver ball to drop at the stroke of midnight, 20,000 balloons are passed out, along with 30,000 pom-poms and mylar leis. Then, when the clock strikes twelve, 3,500 pounds of confetti is dropped from surrounding buildings. Combined with noisemakers, party hats, placards and other items the revelers bring with them, the end result is a huge mess - that needs to be cleaned up by early the next morning. However, for the New York Department of Sanitation district in charge, it's just another party to clean up after.
"You have to realize that we're used to cleanup on a large scale, from all the parades and other events," said Rocky Sabatella, Chief of Cleaning Operations for the Department of Sanitation. "We just had the Yankee's World Series' parade, for example, and that left a tremendous mess, what with all the ticker tape and everything. Still, we handled it without any major problems. People are amazed at how quickly the New York Department of Sanitation cleans up after these big festivals and parades, and we're proud of the job we do."
The New Year's celebration is an annual event that's been going on for over 50 years. Planning starts in the weeks leading up to the event, when a number of meetings are held with all of the agencies involved. Hosted by the police department, representatives attend from Emergency Medical Services, homeless outreach organizations, the Red Cross, fire department and more. Each of the representatives discusses the problems they expect, as well as the manpower and services they'll be providing for the event. These brainstorming sessions build upon what has been learned from prior years. The intent is to unearth anything that might disrupt the smooth operation of the festival. Although vehicle radios are widespread, cell phones have been used extensively the last few years. That's because radio interference is often a factor, especially for large, compacted events like this one, or the parades that wind through the downtown core. The high level of use the radio system receives during large events can also disrupt communications. Cell phones have been found to ensure the transmission of information, and thus a quicker response of personnel.
"What we try to accomplish is to make each one of our ongoing events a little better each year, if that's possible," said Sabatella. "We have a plan we review every year, and we also have an organized feedback system in place. Our people in the field give us a critique on what they think went well, and also suggest changes that might help us to do better next year. For the Times Square bash on New Year's Eve, we review the critiques and we see what, if anything, we can do to help ourselves. Any new ideas are added to the master plan. All of our workers know exactly what their role is prior to the event. We all know who to contact in the event a problem surfaces in a given area. I'm proud to say that we've always met our cleaning deadlines and received accolades from the newspapers and other news media.
"Our cleanup effort actually begins about noon prior to the New Year's Eve celebration. First, we remove all the wastebaskets in the area, so they can't be used for standing on or as an item that someone who's had 'a few too many' can throw around. Then, we pre-clean the area to make sure it starts out looking good. Something we've started doing in just the last three years is to use some of our Cushman Utility Haulsters for the removal of confiscated material. Officers establish checkpoints at the perimeters, and confiscate liquor bottles and cans so they can't be used as items to throw. This also makes the event more festive, because it cuts down on the onsite liquor consumption. Our Cushmans patrol up and down the avenue as needed, picking up the confiscated material.
"This year, the weather was dry, and well below freezing, which was an assist to cleanup. In rainy weather, one of the biggest pickup problems for the Johnston mechanical broom sweepers we use is all the confetti. When the ground is wet, or when water is used for dust suppression, the confetti tends to stick down to the pavement and can be very difficult to get up.
"The bulk of our work force starts an hour before midnight. They meet at one of our garages, and we get a police escort into the area. This year we used ten sweepers and three collection trucks, and had 21 people with backpack blowers. Eight supervisors handled the coordination of efforts for the 57 employees we had on the job. We have a very organized program in place to do the sweeping and other cleanup. The coordination of efforts by our people, in conjunction with those from the Times Square Business Improvement District (BID), is really something to see. By 7 or 8 o'clock the next morning, you'd never think there was a festival just a few hours before."
The Times Square BID was formed in 1992. Its goal was to help return the downtown business area - which is also the theater district - to its former glory. As has happened in many urban areas, the downtown section of New York City had become prey to drug dealers, prostitution and crime. One way they've changed that, according to Robert Esposito, the BID's vice president of operations, is to increase the level of cleanliness in the entire Times Square area.
"Quite frankly, this had become the city's red light district," said Esposito. "People would still come to the theaters, but then would go straight back home. The restaurants were suffering, the hotels were suffering. No one wanted to spend time here during the daylight hours, let alone after dark. Our mission was to make the area safe, and one of the best ways we found to do that was to make it clean and to make it friendly. Now, our hotels are full, crime is down 58% compared to 5 years ago, and there's new construction all over the place.
"We have a total of 50 full-time sanitation workers whose job it is to keep our area clean on an ongoing basis. That's in addition to the street sweeping provided by the NYC Department of Sanitation. Our BID street cleaning personnel use push brooms and containers on wheels. They empty the litter baskets, and also do graffiti removal and take down illegal posters. We run two shifts, 365 days a year. One starts at 6 am and goes until 2 in the afternoon, and then a second shift comes on at 2 and works until 10 at night. Our efforts, in addition to the work the NYC Department of Sanitation does, has resulted in consistently high street cleaning ratings [see side-bar article on page 16 about the NYC street cleanliness rating system]. Because people see that we are keeping the area clean, they are a lot more likely to use the litter baskets."
When asked how he prepares himself for his role in the Times Square cleanup, Esposito said, with a laugh, "Personally, I drink a lot of coffee... Our representatives also attend all of the organizational preparation meetings.
We run all our plans by the city officials, then by the police, since they're ultimately the ones responsible for everyone's safety. For instance, this year, to gear up for the millennium, we introduced a 24-foot puppet of Father Time. The crowd loved it. The puppet was made by someone who's done extensive work for Disney, and he really did a fine job. We also added 3 giant television screens, so more people could see the ball drop who wouldn't be able to otherwise. Next year, we'll have a lot more of those large screens.
"The BID has been involved with the ball drop at Times Square since 1993. This year, we brought 30 of our sanitation workers in for the initial cleanup, and the rest of our crew came on in the morning to 'fine tune' the area. Our part of the cleanup effort is to use leaf blowers to get everything we can off the sidewalks and into the street where the city's mechanical broom sweepers can pick it up.
"The Times Square area starts at 59th Street, and goes all the way down to 42nd Street. Then, going the other direction, it includes Broadway, and 5th through 7th Avenues. Into that relatively small area we get an influx of an estimated 500,000 people. It's very orderly, but also quite packed. After the ball drops, though, it really only takes about 20 minutes for most everyone to leave the area. We don't really have to actively clear the people out, because once the ball falls there's not much left to do. Everyone does the countdown to midnight, and then the fireworks go off, the laser lights activate, and there's music. Once all that stops a few minutes later, people just naturally go. When the leaf blowers start up, the few people still lingering soon get the idea that it must be time to leave.
"Once we get everything blown off the sidewalks, the street sweepers come in and do what I call a 'choreographed dance down Broadway.' That's because the sweepers go the wrong way from normal traffic, they make figure eights, and work very well together, all in unison. Our people constantly push material into the street and the sweepers constantly pick it up. We take care of one street at a time. When we get a street done, we move south to the next section. Police officers keep the streets closed until we get them pretty much cleaned, which is usually about 5 or 6 am. A lot depends upon the weather. The wind, especially, can affect our cleanup of the confetti, as can icy conditions when the material freezes and sticks to the sidewalk. This year it was clear and dry, so that was a help.
"Although we supplement the Department of Sanitation's cleaning effort, we also contribute substantially to the mess. This year, we provided 20,000 balloons, and a combination of pom-poms and mylar leis that totaled 30,000. To give you an idea of the scope of the event, we start giving the latter group out at 10:30. Not one is thrown; each and every one is individually handed to someone. That entire process takes just 12 minutes. We also provide the 3,500 pounds of confetti that is dropped from the roofs, windows and setbacks of various locations around Times Square. The confetti is the real thing, not ground up paper. It is very colorful, and also extremely lightweight. The need to get it all up off the ground seriously increases the cleanup problem, although that gets less significant when compared to all the other material that half a million partying people can leave behind. When you have that many people celebrating an event like the start of the New Year, I can assure you there's a lot of trash left when they go home."
In 1974, the NYC Mayor's Office of Operations instituted a program designed to assess the cleanliness of New York City streets. Its official name is the Scorecard Cleanliness Program. Twice a month, employees from the mayor's office perform onsite visits to each street sweeping district in the city. Sample blocks are scored for cleanliness, using a points system. Then, on a monthly basis, managers in each of the city's sweeping districts are provided with what amounts to a scorecard that rates the cleanliness of their streets.
The program is coordinated through the Mayor's Office of Operations, as a 'check-and-balance' to keep the rating process independent. Sanitation managers aren't told in advance exactly what streets are going to be reviewed, or even which were actually assessed. However, they are told the general subarea of their district that the ratings covered, and so are able to respond to the assessments.
Based upon what the rating was for a given subarea in the previous month, cleaning personnel are often moved in or out of a particular area. In the last few years, many of these 'flex cleaners' have consisted of people from the NYC Work Experience Program (WEP). Employees under this program are individuals who are considered fit to work, but who are currently on the welfare rolls. For the last several years, if they can't find work on their own, these people have been required to work at municipal and state agencies. These include the New York State Department of Transportation and the NYC Sanitation Department, which handles street sweeping in the city. The number of hours each person works is determined by the amount of welfare money they are receiving. Each has a skills assessment to help place them in a suitable position.
Those who work for the NYC Sanitation Department are provided with work clothes, a broom, and a barrel outfitted with wheels that's designed to hold the debris they sweep up. They also have garbage bags that can be filled and left by the curb. Sanitation trucks are assigned to support these workers by periodically emptying the barrels and picking up the filled trash bags. The use of WEP personnel is considered a success, and has resulted in a significant improvement in the city's street cleanliness rating scores. The mayoral scorecard system has been in place for over 20 years, and yet city officials say that records for street cleanliness have been consistently broken in the two years the WEP program has been in place.
Sample NYC street cleanliness scorecards have been posted on the WorldSweeper.com website.
This article is reprinted from American Sweeper magazine, Volume 7 Number 1, 1999.
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