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February 2007

Snow closures: A look behind the scenes

Staffers got a special holiday treat in December that wasn’t candy, neckties, or potpourri baskets. Rather, it was the gift of time, in the form of two and a half snow days.

UCAR/NCAR’s facilities in Boulder closed on the afternoon of December 20, and for full days on both December 21 and 29, due to major snowstorms that closed roads, schools, and businesses. For many staffers, their day’s work began and ended with a quick morning phone call or Web check to ascertain that it was indeed a snow day, after which they went about their business sleeping in, shoveling the walk, or perhaps working from home. But who makes the call to close due to weather? What criteria do they use?


The route from Foothills to Center Green in late December. (Photo by Ilan Kelman.)

The official answer can be found in Section 5-1-2 of the UCAR Policy Manual, which states that closure decisions are made on a site-by-site basis by the vice president for finance and administration (Katy Schmoll), with the recommendation of the director of Physical Plant Services (John Pereira) and in consultation with the director of Safety and Site Services (Steve Sadler). Rick Anthes, UCAR president, also weighs in.

According to Steve, the group relies on a number of criteria to determine whether or not to close, among them severe weather warnings from the National Weather Service (NWS) and internal forecasts from meteorologists in ESSL/MMM and COMET. The status of other organizations in Boulder is also taken into account.

“If all the schools are closing and we know our employees have child care concerns, that factors in,” Steve says. “We use information from a number of different sources, and no one of them rules.”

Forecasting snow days

Morris Weisman in ESSL/MMM provides informal forecasts to Steve when severe winter storms approach Boulder. “I try to get snow days every day, and every once in a while Steve agrees to it,” he jokes.

A forecaster at heart, Morris says he’s always watching the weather. When a severe event is looming, he examines standard NWS operational models and reviews radar and satellite data, as well as output from NCAR’s Weather Research and Forecasting model (WRF) when possible. He also practices a much simpler method: looking out the window.

“You really have to pay attention to what you see outside and what the observations are showing you,” he says. “For the December 20 blizzard, there was disagreement in the models but the potential for a big storm. It wasn’t until that morning that we could see the huge area of precipitation having developed over the Plains and moving westward toward the Front Range.”

Katy, John, and Steve try to make the call to close for the day by 5:30 a.m. so that they complete the notification process by 6 a.m. Christy Fletcher and Liz Kriete (both in SaSS) send e-mail and voice mail notification to all employees at Boulder facilities and update the SaSS hotline (ext. 1100). A notice is posted to the main UCAR

Web site as well as the F&A and SaSS sites. John notifies local media to have UCAR/NCAR included on public closure announcements.

Security and snow removal

Not everyone gets the day off, though. Because NCAR has an around-the-clock security presence, officers stick it out during storms, even if that means shifts that last 24 hours or more.

“Our biggest concerns during heavy snowfall are at the Mesa Lab on the hill road, where we get people sledding, skiing, and snowboarding. We survey the roads and our parking lots constantly,” says Ron Wicker from AlliedBarton Security Services, UCAR’s contract security service. The hill road is private NSF property.

Severe weather doesn’t mean that NCAR is closed to the public. Visitors to the Mesa Lab on a snow day are allowed into the building for self-guided tours provided the building isn’t experiencing power or maintenance problems.

Maintenance staffers are another group who don’t all get the day off during building closures. Dave Maddy, manager of maintenance and construction in PPS, oversees snow removal efforts at the organization’s Boulder facilities. “Big snow events work the same as any time it snows more than an inch,” he says. “In the event of an extreme storm when we think we might lose access, we station our people here in advance.”

Those people are a crew of staffers led by Rich Johnson (PPS) who mobilize whenever snow falls. NCAR, not the City of Boulder, is responsible for clearing the hill road to the Mesa Lab.

During major snowstorms, driving to and through Boulder to the Mesa Lab road to clear it can be a challenge. “It’s one thing to have great equipment and a great crew, but when the highway patrol says you can’t drive on a road, that does it,” Dave says. “But the folks on our snow removal crew tend to be fairly hardy stock who own vehicles that get them around.”

An independent contractor, overseen and supported by PPS, clears snow from the sidewalks and parking lots at the Foothills, Center Green, and Jeffco campuses. The City of Boulder is responsible for clearing the adjacent roads.

Keeping the computers humming

The Mesa Lab computer room requires at least one operator around the clock to monitor the room’s infrastructure and ensure that the supercomputers and network remain up and running. The lab has a back-up generator in case of a power outage.

“We’re considered essential staff regardless of plant closures,” explains Linda LaBrie, computer production group head. “It’s a role built right into the job description.”

One person can single-handedly oversee the room during snowstorms, but the problem is usually getting that person to and from the building. Often this means staffers putting in extra-long shifts, sometimes up to 36 hours. It also requires computer room and infrastructure support staff who own four-wheel drive vehicles to volunteer to shuttle colleagues to and from the Mesa Lab.

“The December storms demonstrated outstanding teamwork and effort because a lot of staff were on vacation,” Linda says.

What about the bill?

Finally, there is the burning question that everyone would prefer to not think about while enjoying a snow day: what are the financial consequences? According to Katy, the average snow closure day costs UCAR about $300,000-340,000. Since the December closures took place during the holidays when more staffers than usual were taking PTO (paid time off), the total cost for two and a half days came to $518,000.

During a closure, salaries for employees scheduled to work (those not on PTO, travel, or based outside Boulder) cannot be charged to NSF or other direct funders; instead, the salaries are charged to the benefits pool. Increases in the benefits pool impact the funding available for science and programs. Because of the way the federal government handles budgeting, the snow closures have the effect of raising UCAR’s benefits rates two years after they occur.

“It potentially makes the cost of employing someone higher,” Katy explains. “We are all sensitive to increases in the indirect rates, which necessitates caution in closing our facilities.”
Because the organization serves as a host for conferences and events that are attended by visitors from literally all over the world, site-wide closures can have a dramatic, detrimental effect on important meetings, Katy adds.

She points out that UCAR has a very liberal work and family policy that allows employees and supervisors to establish flexible work alternatives, which can be applied during circumstances such as snow storms when staffers might find it risky to drive to work.

“Supervisors are generally very sympathetic, and will allow employees to come to work late or leave early in order to mitigate against the conditions, making up the work at later times,” she says. • Nicole Gordon

In this issue...

New data center to be based in Cheyenne

Climate Change and Islands: Are Scientists Serving Society?

Snow closures: A look behind the scenes

Random Profile: Justin Watt

Images by NCAR scientists on display

Delphi Question: Cafeterias trans-fat-free?

Just One Look


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