Snow closures: A look behind
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
In this issue...
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Change and Islands: Are Scientists Serving Society?
closures: A look behind the scenes
Profile: Justin Watt
by NCAR scientists on display
Question: Cafeterias trans-fat-free?
Just One Look
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