Behind the scenes: snow day edition
Jay Benedict | editor-in-chief
PSU President Steve Scott’s alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday. By 5 a.m., he was on campus with a team of officials, poised to make the call that would give students their second snow day in a week.
Scott has the final say on whether students get the day off, and according to university policy, that decision must be made by 5:30 a.m. Preparation for the decision began Monday afternoon with a meeting of the Executive Policy Group, which is charged with deciding the university’s response to any kind of crisis.
Tom Amershek, director of building trades and landscape maintenance, was present at this meeting because his department is responsible for dealing with the threat of severe weather. The forecast originally called for anywhere between 1 to 3 inches of snow accumulation and the group wanted to plan for the situation.
“Normally, we’d spread ice-melt beforehand to help keep the snow from accumulating,” Amershek said. “But we didn’t want to waste it because there was rain before the snow started.”
Even though the forecast was increased to 5 to 7 inches on Monday night, that ended up being the right move, because it started raining roughly 12 hours before significant snowfall and temperatures remained above freezing.
“We weren’t sure when it would turn over to snow,” Amershek said. “We do everything we can to help, but we don’t want to waste resources.”
During the overnight hours, the university police monitor campus. Tuesday morning, it was Sgt. Terry Pierce’s responsibility to keep tabs on the snowfall and campus conditions. Pierce’s duties require him to call Amershek if there are 3 inches of snow by 3 a.m. He must also inform John Patterson, vice president of administration and campus life, if there is any inclement weather by 4:30 a.m., regardless of the amount.
“I called Patterson and informed him of the current conditions, the forecast and the driving condition,” Pierce said. “I also placed a call to Amershek, even though we only had about 11/2 inches of snow, but he was already up and had his people mobilized.”
Amershek says he was awake and making calls to the university’s snow removal contractors by 3:45 a.m. He had them on campus by 5 a.m. and the regular university employees were here by 5:30 a.m.
“We work independently of the group that oversees school cancellation,” Amershek said. “We are here working to clear the snow from campus regardless of the president’s decision.”
As the PSU Physical Plant and the contractors were beginning their work, Scott and Patterson toured the campus and met with University Police Chief Mike McCracken at the campus police station, which doubles as an operation center during times of crisis.
They decided the current conditions and forecast warranted closing the university.
“Tuesday morning, the biggest concern was the prediction that it was going to snow until noon, and it was snowing hard as we made our drive,” Scott said. “Also, the roads were very slick.”
After Scott closed campus, it fell to Steve Erwin, Ron Womble, director of media relations, and Chris Kelly, associate vice president of university marketing and communication, to inform the students via social media, the internet, and media outlets.
Erwin, associate vice president of campus life and auxiliary services, is responsible for the text alert and Bulk-E systems. Erwin says he wasn’t on campus Tuesday morning, but was in constant contact with Scott. The discussion started around 5 a.m. and the decision was made official around 5:40 a.m. when the announcement went out.
“From the time of the decision to when the message goes out is about 30 minutes,” Erwin said. “I can do it from because it’s all web-based, but it takes time to get into the programs, input the messages, and when you’re sending out more than 7,000 messages it takes time.”
The snow stopped falling shortly after Scott’s decision to close campus, but Amershek says his crew worked non-stop until about 10 a.m. At that point they had most areas clear enough that the university could resume operations at 5 p.m. They made their first campus sweep as soon as everyone was on-site, but continued working until 4 p.m.
“We hit everything as soon as we got here, even though it was still snowing,” Amershek said. “I’d rather hit four inches twice, than eight inches once. It’s a lot easier on the workers and the equipment.”
The clean up continues. Much of the snow from across campus was piled in the Carnie Smith Stadium, near the university lake. Amershek says the snow was moved there because those parking spots are rarely used and when it melts, that area drains directly into the lake.
Snow costs university time, money
Students spent two days relaxing and enjoying a snowbound Pittsburg State, but faculty, who have to account for the lost time, had a little less fun.
Paul Zagorski, professor of political science, says his Tuesday-Thursday course, the Senior Seminar on International Relations, has been disrupted. However, he says, it’s better to cancel courses than hold low-attendance sessions in bad weather.
“Sometimes, like (Tuesday, Feb. 26), you err on the wrong side, but that’s going to happen. It’s better to be a bit cautious rather than making people trudge in and then you hold class, but you get three people out of a dozen.”
Jaime Wood, associate professor of psychology, says that decision makers at the university have his complete trust, but that having two snow days in quick succession is still a significant challenge.
“You basically try to make up as much progress as you possibly can,” he said. “There are topics that you may have planned to have gone into more depth with students, and yet you’re not able to do so.”
Gil Cooper says that upper-level courses are particularly hard to adjust to a shortened academic calendar.
“A lot of my classes are very active and experiential,” said Cooper, instructor in communication. “That means you’re going to lose exercises that you have to adjust and change. It sounds easy. It’s like, ‘Oh, well, just don’t do that exercise, just give them that information.’ That is possible, but you’re still up against that deadline.”
Canceling classes at PSU used to be unheard of.
“In the past, we haven’t done that,” Zagorski said. “It was ridiculous because there would be nobody there, and if people would come there would be no place for them to park.”
Tom Bryant, who was succeeded by Steve Scott as university president in 2009, almost never closed campus during his tenure.
“I certainly believe it’s important for our students and faculty to be in class and for the university to be open and fully operational,” Scott said. “At the same time, we have to recognize there are days when that’s just not possible. Finding the right balance is what you’ll see us doing. I’m sure we’ll error from to time, because making decisions that are affected by weather is never going to be easy.”
Tom Amershek, has overall responsibility for getting campus walkways, parking lots and roads back into service after a winter storm. He says that the current administration’s increased readiness to order a closure of campus promotes safety and makes snow removal easier.
“They understand that we do need to close at times,” Amershek said. “That has helped us tremendously. They really have changed that philosophy, so now it is a safer campus.”
Amershek says that after a large storm like the one that hit on Feb. 21, snow and ice removal was efficient. After the Feb. 26 storm, the work was mostly complete within five hours. However, it can be expensive.
About $4,000-$5,000 for every day of closure must be spent to hire independent contractors, usually Pittsburg-area firms Hipfl Construction and Heckert Construction, to bring in heavy equipment like large snowplows and road graders.
Those machines are used to clear campus roads and parking lots, but not dorm parking lots because of the number of cars that are parked there overnight.
As with this year, prestocked supplies of sand and ice-melting compounds often run out, so the physical plant has to buy more, sometimes on a moment’s notice.
Local suppliers are used as much as possible, Amershek says, but sometimes pallets of material must be shipped in. Typically, a pallet of ice-melting compound will cost about $500 at the Pittsburg Home Depot, and pallets are bought two or three at a time.
Campus safety is the first concern for maintenance workers, who want to prevent people from injury, Amershek says.
Wood says that university decision makers need to be vigilant about safety and that he believes they are.
“Which is why I think you see more snow days, not only at our university but at others,” Wood said.
Mike McCracken, university police chief, says that the university had a lot of luck with the recent winter storms in that no one was reported injured from slipping or other weather-related dangers.
However, he says, students who engage in activities like snowball fights still need to be careful, and, by the way, not ever throw anything at a police officer or police car.
“I do not recommend that,” he said with a laugh. “Even something as simple as a snowball is considered assault in that case. People think of it as a joke, but snowballs break windows and windshields of cars and people get injured. It can be kind of dangerous.”