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Safety & Accident

Coordination is Key to Responding to Snow Emergencies

November 2007, Government Fleet - Feature

by Cheryl Knight - Also by this author

Responding to extreme weather conditions presents challenges for many cities throughout the United States. However, fleet departments are often put to the test as weather roadblocks get in the way of maintenance and emergency vehicles.

Last December, the City of Westminster, Colo., responded to a “storm event,” which included heavy rain, ice jams, and severe blizzards. The blizzards stopped truckers in their tracks and caused Denver International Airport to close down due to blocked roads.

The Westminster fleet division, public works streets and utilities, parks, and emergency management cooperated to successfully meet the needs of the community.

The storm itself, while severe, was just like many others the City had faced in the past. But this time, the City’s emergency management and fleet maintenance teams were able to utilize city vehicles more effectively than before.

Westminster Storm Event Response Better than Ever
On Dec. 19, 2006, the city’s emergency management coordinator notified Westminster’s city manager of weather reports predicting a severe winter storm with high winds and heavy snow that would impact the city the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 20. Staff from the fire department, parks, recreation, library, police department, fleet maintenance, and public works and utilities immediately assembled in the Public Safety Center to organize the Westminster Emergency Coordination Center (ECC).

As expected, the primary areas of concern were stranded drivers in vehicles along major travel routes.

“Two issues that came to bear on the event were the lack of ability to respond to a large number of incidents for Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) throughout the state to clear snow from the highways, as well as some preliminary problems in getting contract towing companies on-site to assist with the removal of vehicles to facilitate the work of city plows,” said Mike Reddy, emergency management captain of the Westminster Fire Department.

Due to an accident involving several semitruck rigs along the highway and an overwhelming number of calls, the CDOT had limited ability to assist with snow removal in order to get tow rigs in to clear the accident — miles of stranded vehicles sitting behind the accident forced the closure of Highway 36 eastbound. City staff recognized this situation as the most significant issue to address utilizing city plows to clear the area of snow, which allowed the tow trucks to get in and remove the vehicles involved in the accident.

Some motorists were allowed to continue traveling while others were transported to the Red Cross supported shelter at the City Park Recreation Center. Access by tow trucks to remove stuck vehicles was improved and vehicles were moved to vacant public parking lots in the area.

In addition, Westminster City Fire and Police personnel removed many stranded motorists using city four-wheel-drive units throughout the day. The National Guard assisted the police department in this activity around 8 p.m.

The police department, operating out of several “borrowed” four-wheel-drive units from parks, fire, and public works worked to transport essential replacement personnel trapped in their neighborhoods to City facilities. City staff also canvassed the community for stranded vehicles/motorists to provide assistance.

“The fire department had problems getting replacement staff to work, requiring many of the Wednesday on-duty staff to stay over to cover,” Reddy said. “With this additional staff, the fi re department separated all fire apparatus with four personnel and staffed five ambulances.”

The entire operation was deemed a complete success.

Municipal Fleet Response Key to Overcoming Winter Roadblocks
Looking back at the storm event, the City was able to assess why the operation was so successful: the coordination and cooperation at different levels of government was better than in the past.

“Information sharing, resource mobilization, and management of the incident was much smoother,” said Reddy. “Because we improved our performance through management of the incident, emergency vehicles got where they needed to go.”

But what led to successful management?

According to Judy Workman, fleet manager, CEM, fleet maintenance, the snowstorm response was a prime example of people going above and beyond to provide services to the City of Westminster.

“The snow removal efforts were supported by dedicated employees who performed duties around the clock, including maintaining vehicles and equipment, removing snow on the streets and facilities, providing emergency services, and providing utility services without interruption,” Workman said.

Teamwork and Training Lead to Successful Emergency Response
Teamwork was critical in the efforts to get equipment back on route quickly and organize resources at the emergency management level.

And while Westminster’s equipment, personnel, and procedures in 2006 were identical to previous storm events, one key change led to a smoother emergency response operation — training.

“We had gone through National Incident Management System (NIMS) training due to Homeland Security Presidential Directive #5,” Reddy said.

While taking classes to become compliant with NIMS, city employees learned how to handle an ‘all risk’ incident better, and the relationships built with other employees during training made it easier to work together during the storm event.

“Typing standards also allowed us to get the right equipment to the right user,” Reddy said. “Resource typing, mobilization plans, common incident management system, and relationships really do make a difference in the outcome of any incident.”

NIMS provides a consistent, nationwide approach for federal, state, and local governments to work effectively and effi ciently together. It helps prepare for, respond to, and recover from domestic incidents, regardless of cause, size, or complexity.

To provide for interoperability and compatibility among federal, state, and local capabilities, NIMS includes a core set of concepts, principles, terminology, and technologies covering the incident command system. This includes multi-agency coordination systems, unifi ed command, training, identifi cation and management of resources (including systems for classifying types of resources), qualifi cations and certifi cation, and the collection, tracking, and reporting of incident information and incident resources.

According to Workman, all NIMS concepts came into play during the storm event.

“We used our information systems much better than in the past, and we knew how big the problem was sooner than before,” she said.

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