Eighty-degree weather provides an unlikely setting for discussions of snow removal, but Monday’s regional After Action Forum on Snow Response, sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), was neither chilly nor heated.
The attendees, ranging from elected officials and emergency management professionals to utility representatives and the director of the federal Office of Personnel Management, spent more than two hours reviewing the challenges of this winter’s historic snowfalls.
The 21 local jurisdictions in the COG membership have a variety of snow removal responsibilities. In Virginia, snow removal is a state responsibility for most counties; municipalities such as Falls Church and Alexandria do their own streets. The District of Columbia’s Public Works Department is the responsible party in the Nation’s Capital, and Maryland jurisdictions have a hybrid of state and local activities.
Jurisdictional lines in the region are very porous to most residents and commuters. A car trip north from the Springfield Interchange to Capitol Hill takes you through four separate jurisdictions: Fairfax County, Alexandria City, Arlington County, and the District of Columbia. Traveling north, south, east, or west, by car, bus, or Metro train, the “entering” or “leaving” signs are simply a blur. Except when it snows! That’s when the jurisdictional differences often show up. A road might be well-plowed and passable by municipal crews, for example, but when that same road crosses into a county whose snow plowing is administered by the state, travel can come to a halt as the two or three lanes narrow to one or less.
The After Action Forum discussion revealed a number of challenges shared by all jurisdictions. The region was prepared for a smaller snowfall; even December’s storm of 18 or so inches of drier, fluffier snow over a weekend was manageable for most jurisdictions. No one was ready for the 30 to 50 inches of wetter, heavier snow that fell in February. The usual snow pushing operations became snow removal operations, requiring different (and scarce) equipment. One speaker noted that heavy duty tow trucks were needed because people simply would not stay off the roads. When their vehicles became stuck, no one could get around them, not even plows.
Several ideas that deserve further scrutiny were floated at the forum. All of the speakers agreed that additional equipment and contractor resources are needed, and sharing or stockpiling those resources regionally would help not just in snowstorms, but other emergencies such as hurricanes. Parking on one side of the street got a lot of head nods from attendees, a simple act that could help clear a lot of neighborhoods. Early decision-making by the Office of Personnel Management is critical, especially for transit operators and school systems to make plans. The utility companies said that the winter storms proved the value of advanced tree trimming; most of the outages, especially in Maryland, were the result of trees or branches falling across power lines. Sidewalk shoveling also rated some discussion, and some local jurisdictions are looking at implementing both regulations and volunteers to address the issue. Teleworking and clearing of fire hydrants were among other ideas discussed.
The After Action Forum report will be presented to the COG Board of Directors’ meeting next week, and additional work on a regional response will be forthcoming before next winter’s weather sets in.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]