Looking into snow day protocols
Despite this year’s lack of snow, AU is well-prepared for a big storm
Sometimes even an inch of snow can send the District into a frenzy. American University experienced several snow days over the past few years, and despite having none so far this year, AU relies on strict protocol and an extensive plan in preparation of winter flurries.
When students hear about the potential for snow, their first thoughts may be whether or not they have a day off from school. For AU’s Assistant Director for Grounds, Vehicle Maintenance & Support Services Mark Feist, it is a different story.
Cancellations or delays are determined based on how conditions are on campus. If there is still accumulation and it looks like ice could be dangerous, Feist may report unstable conditions to the Assistant Vice President of Facilities Management Vincent Harkins, and the decision to delay or cancel is made based on the possibility to provide a safe environment in time for classes.
“I’m always boots on the ground here,” Feist said. “It’s 24/7 during winter storms.”
Feist said there is a logistical and operational plan in determining snow days. The team looks at external conditions, such as other schools, roads and government callings. He said provisions are in place whether or not the school is closed, and residential safety, the library and food services are priorities.
“We have a pretty elaborate operation, a plan that we use every year,” Feist said. “We start before the snow starts, and only end when it’s safe on campus. We even house and feed the people working here. This is because we stay around clock.”
Harkins said not everyone is happy on a snow day, but part of his job is keeping everyone safe.
“The grounds, maintenance and housekeeping staff need to sleep here overnight for many storms so they are available to keep the campus safe,” Harkins said. “That takes them away from their families, which is hard.”
Depending on the conditions, Harkins makes a call to University Communications and Marketing to give the go ahead for a delay or cancellation. From there UCM sends an AU Alert to students and faculty informing them of campus conditions and the status of the school day.
Feist may call Harkins as early as 4:30 a.m. to give word about current conditions on campus. They communicate together in order to help keep the walkways and roads safe.
“It’s challenging, but I think we’ve tweaked the system the past six years, so it works pretty smooth [sic],” Harkins said. “We try to make the right decisions, it’s all about safety and having people get to work.”
Harkins said in many cases if there is a delay, the designated school opening time is 11 a.m., which is best to not get in the way of too many classes by interrupting at odd times.
There are some scenarios where it has snowed during the day, and AU has called off school early. In 2010, “Snowmageddon” struck hard, leaving people stuck on the highway for more than eight hours. Last year, “Snowzilla” hit the District with similar force.
“It’s the same process as cancellations and delays, we track the weather and accumulation,” Harkins said. “There was one time before I got here where people got stuck on highway because there was no early release.”
Harkins said he is responsible for making calls to all critical departments such as the shuttle busses, the dining programs, housing and several others.
“[Feist and I seem to track the weather more than the meteorologists on a lot of sites,” Harkins said. “Then I have to talk to the wellness center, fitness center, library, law school. So it’s a very long morning. But in the end it’s about making sure it is safe enough for people to get here and back home.”
Feist said he coordinates the snow team on campus for Facilities Management. He said there are approximately 35 members on staff for that team, and there is a variety of equipment supplies they use.
“We report the presence on campus,” Feist said. “In cases where the storm is too large, typically storms with more than 1 foot of snow, we have a contractor we call to help move the snow. The campus is so enclosed that sometimes we run out of room.”
There are countless behind the scenes activities occurring before and after every snow storm at AU. As students hope for a day off, Feist, Harkins, the administration, and many employees work throughout the day to make sure accommodations are met and the campus is secure, cancellation or not.