Suffolk County Fire Commissioner Joe Williams, far right, with Suffolk...

Suffolk County Fire Commissioner Joe Williams, far right, with Suffolk County Police Chief of Patrol John Meehan, in front of a Suffolk County transit bus and a new police army humvee, which will help residents and their pets to evacuate to shelters during emergencies, at the Suffolk County bus corporation depot in Ronkonkoma. (Oct. 24, 2013) Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk County will be better prepared to get into the hardest-hit areas during the next major storm -- and get residents out -- with a new emergency response plan, officials said Thursday.

Among the new storm-preparedness initiatives is using county buses to take residents and their pets to Red Cross emergency shelters during a storm.

"One of the most important things that we've done following Sandy was to look at our operation and learn from that storm, and think about what we can do better," County Executive Steve Bellone said in a news conference.

Suffolk for years has used county buses to help evacuate residents, but the new program, called Suffolk SAFE Transit, will include a special hotline that will be staffed round-the-clock during an emergency to arrange for pick ups. Bus drivers also will receive special training to respond to emergencies.

"We think we've designed a system that's a little bit better, a little more focused," said John Corrado, president of Suffolk Bus Corp., the county's primary bus operator.

Other new storm response initiatives concentrate on gaining access to flooded areas during and after a storm. The county acquired surplus federal military vehicles, including seven Humvees that can ford water as deep as 3 feet.

Suffolk police also have applied for federal grant money to upgrade communication technology so helicopters can better interact with emergency responders on the ground, officials said.

Suffolk Police Chief of Patrol John Meehan said the measures followed a thorough review of the police response to superstorm Sandy, which he called "the most damaging natural catastrophe" he has witnessed. "It put serious strain on the resources of this county. I think everyone would agree with that," Meehan said. "Clearly, the experience of dealing with that alters your perspective of how prepared we really are for a major disaster here in Suffolk County."

County officials said other measures in the works or already completed will better equip them for the next storm, including the installation of global positioning systems on all buses.

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