New York City Is Still Working On Its Air Quality Emergency Plan

Amidst a summer of consistently bad air quality due to Canadian wildfire smoke, New York City is still working on what to do in the case of bad air quality, according to a response to a Motherboard public records request.
Orange sun over NYC skyline July 19
Anadolu Agency / Contributor via Getty

New York City is still working on its emergency plan for dangerous air quality events despite the city being subjected all summer to some of the worst air quality it has had in decades due to Canadian wildfires, according to a response to a Motherboard public records request.

When the city was shrouded in a toxic fog in early June from Canadian wildfire smoke, Mayor Eric Adams defended the administration’s lack of action around the worsening air quality by saying, “There is no blueprint or playbook for these types of issues…You want to be as prepared as possible but there is no planning for an incident like this.” 


Motherboard filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the New York City Office of Emergency Management for “any playbooks, emergency plans, or similar preparedness documents regarding hazardous air quality.” Many other cities have emergency plans and blueprints for hazardous air quality events and scientists have been warning such events will become more frequent for decades. On July 21, OEM rejected the request, citing law that exempts documents in draft form from release. 

“Although NYC Emergency Management is at work on developing procotols [sic] and playbooks for addressing air quality emergencies, they are still in draft form and are exempt from disclosure pursuant to New York Public Officers Law §87(2)(g),” the response said.

Playbooks in other cities, such as Sacramento, provide clear steps in color-coded charts for what emergency measures to take when certain air quality readings are hit. For example, all landscaping activities are discontinued when AQI reaches 200 or above and distribution of N95 masks at 300 and above. There are also plans for how to assist vulnerable populations such as homeless people. 

When Motherboard asked NYCEM when the air quality plan will be finalized, we received a confusing response that suggested such plans actually exist, but we cannot see them. Spokesperson Ines Bebea said, “A large part of our air quality after action review efforts includes reviewing existing plans and playbooks to see how they can more clearly be augmented for these type of events. This includes our existing plans that outline capabilities such as public information, vulnerable population outreach, and logistics.” Motherboard asked why its FOIL was rejected if air quality event plans exist and reiterated our request to see those plans. Motherboard did not receive a response.