Lessons in storm preparation

On February 22, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

mayor_webBy Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

As we continue to dig out from the recent blizzard, even last weekend’s relatively minor snowfall presented significant challenges in terms of snow removal and cleanup. Our DPW crews continue to log anywhere between 16 and 40 hour shifts to make our streets and public ways safe and accessible, and in just over a week they have, along with some assistance from private contractors, contributed tens of thousands of man hours to storm cleanup alone. Even with the warmer-than-average temperatures last week, significant amounts of snow and ice linger across the city, and therefore any amount of additional, plowable snowfall not only hinders our cleanup efforts, but creates new concerns around parking and safety. All of these factors combine to make planning for subsequent snow emergencies more difficult and complex than if Somerville hadn’t just experienced a record-setting snowfall.

As the most densely populated community in the northeast, we know all too well that parking is at a premium year-round, and that snow emergencies add to the burden. We are equally aware that school cancellations create genuine concerns about lost classroom time and finding childcare on short notice.

These issues are all very much on our minds when we decide whether to declare, and how to manage, a snow emergency.  I am, after all, the father of four school-aged children, and a Somerville resident. These decisions have the same consequences for our family as they do for yours.  Since my wife and I both work full-time, we are intimately familiar with the difficulties of arranging childcare, carpools, and other challenges we face as parents.

We are a two-car family, and we too grapple with the difficulties of parking on a daily basis. I understand the frustrations of snow emergencies and their effects on our daily lives. We weigh those effects carefully when deciding how and when to cancel school. Ultimately, safety is and always will be the most important determining factor in whether or not to declare a snow emergency.

Our snow emergency policies state that we may declare emergency anytime four or more inches of snow are predicted to fall. A range of governmental, commercial and media forecasts are monitored well in advance of any potential storm by a city team that includes myself, the DPW Commissioner, the Police Chief, the Fire Chief, the Communications Director, the Superintendent of Schools, our Constituent Services unit and others.  We track a number of predications for total snow accumulation as well the timeline for the projected snow fall, and any other weather-related impacts, including high winds, poor visibility or temperature variations that may lead to icing of roads, sidewalks, trees and power lines.

We consult with municipal officials and staff in surrounding communities to better assess regional action plans and resources. We evaluate the needs of residents, businesses and the public schools communities in terms of safety, accessibility, and balance them against our need to clear streets and sidewalks safely and efficiently. Finally, armed with this knowledge, we meet as a team to weigh each option carefully, mapping out plow routes, priority areas like schools and main intersections, and ultimately determine whether children and school staff can safely access each school and whether a snow emergency must be declared in order for our DPW and public safety crews to quickly respond as necessary in these storms.

One common misconception about the city’s snow emergency declarations is that they are synchronized with school closings “because the city needs the school lots for parking.”  While it is a natural assumption, it is not the reason we typically close school during snow emergencies. More often than not, the declaration of a snow emergency means that city plows and other utility vehicles will be working on main thoroughfares and small secondary roads, plowing snow to the curb, sometimes in poor visibility conditions that may be dangerous for children and parents walking in these areas.  It may also mean, as evidenced by the recent blizzard, that high snow piles impair visibility for pedestrians and drivers, or yet-to-be-shoveled and/or icy sidewalks that force pedestrians – namely, children – into the road.  There are any number of scenarios like these that must be considered during snowstorms and other emergencies that require the closure of schools for everyone’s safety.

We are well aware that snow emergencies are not a one-size-fits-all action, but that every resident has a unique set of needs that may include an unusual work schedule, specialized parking requirements, childcare concerns, or difficulty with accessibility during snow events. We do our very best to balance each of those needs as much as possible.  Whatever the situation, our goal is to provide information about emergencies in real time, and to communicate the declaration of a snow emergency with as much advance notice as possible to allow residents to plan ahead.

Because we now have the ability, via our Blackboard Connect mass notification system and social media feeds, to notify residents much sooner when we anticipate a declaration (unless, as last weekend, we encounter forecasts that change very quickly), it is often the case that we can and will announce our intent to declare an emergency several hours before it goes into effect.  To give residents as much notice as possible, we also post information to the city website, all of our cable and educational access cable channels and regional media partners’ sites, and we have installed flashing blue lights at 22 main intersections, particularly at our borders. Our goal is to reach as many people as possible with as much notice as possible in order to avoid ticketing and towing in these circumstances. Our data shows that, over the last few snow emergencies, ticketing and towing has decreased significantly, demonstrating both that compliance is up, and that our notifications are effective. That is not to say we don’t need improvement in these areas, but we know we’re on the right track.

In the meantime, if you happen to see one of our DPW crews around town this week, consider taking a moment to thank them. As our thoughts turn to another potential storm for the coming weekend, remember that these crews haven’t stopped working in two weeks, and this winter still has a lot in store.


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