The Sheriff and a State of "Special" Emergency

By Sheriff Ron Spike, Yates County
The office of Sheriff in New York State plays several important roles in the public safety of the people residing, visiting or traveling within a county. There are over 40 New York State statues of law where the office of Sheriff is mentioned. Included in those duties and obligations is a little-known but important responsibility for an elected Sheriff in the protection of life and property while performing the legal obligations and sworn duty of “conservator of the peace within the county.”

The Sheriff is conferred powers per the New York State Municipal Law (209-f-2a) to declare a special emergency. The law states: “Notwithstanding any inconsistent provision of law, general, special or local, the sheriff of any county may, when the public interest requires it, declare a state of special emergency in any part or parts of his county where the public peace is threatened or where life or property may be endangered, after first advising the governor, by telegram, facsimile or other electronic means that he is about to do so.”

During the continuance of any declared special emergency until it has been terminated by the Sheriff who declared it or by the Governor, the declaring Sheriff may request aid from other jurisdictions within his county, and shall have the authority to request any number of Sheriffs in New York State to detail and assist in the management of the emergency and deputize those deputies as “Emergency Deputy Sheriffs” to maintain the public peace or to prevent life or property becoming endangered. These deputies are further described in Section 655 of the County Law and may be compensated as explained in Section 657 of that law. While engaged in this duty, those rendering aid will have all the authority, rights and benefits they would normally have in their own jurisdictions including workmen's compensation benefits. It should be noted that in the county of Nassau the Sheriff's power reverts to the County Executive.

Whenever a major event takes place impacting a county meeting the special emergency definition, Sheriffs make the declaration. As an example, it is common for the Schuyler County Sheriff to make such a declaration during major NASCAR racing events that have a major impact on that county. Deputies come from nearby counties to assist in keeping the peace, and are sworn in taking and signing an oath as Emergency Deputy Sheriffs for that county. Often Sheriffs will make the declaration when weather, such as major snow accumulation or visibility, flooding, freezing rain or an ice storm, makes roadways impassible or dangerous in all or parts of the county, closing the roadways to traffic for public safety purposes. Additionally, this has been done when a lake's water rises to over flooding stages and restriction of boat traffic or a reduced speed on the public waterways is essential to protect life and shoreline property from damage. Although not a frequent event, it could be declared when a prisoner has escaped custody endangering the public. There are numerous events requiring emergency management that may make this declaration necessary and required.

The Sheriff plays an important role in the management of emergencies in a county, and the power to declare a “special emergency” is paramount at times for the public safety and coordination with the County Emergency Manager, fire and EMS, other law enforcement agencies, first responders, and special services; and perhaps even appropriate as prior to a real “state of emergency” being declared by the head of municipal government or the Governor.