With local closings, timing is everything

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Weather: A look behind the scenes at how decisions to shut down are made

By Tris DeRoma

It’s not easy calling a snow day, even in a small town like Los Alamos.

According to officials involved in determining how and when things get canceled or postponed due to adverse weather conditions, there’s a lot of coordination and timing involved. Just ask Patricia Wolff, spokesperson for the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

“It’s a decision that has to made first by the county administrator,” she said. “He starts assessing a variety of reports as soon as he’s contacted.”

Reports from public works, road crews, police, fire, emergency rescue, all come across his desk, where he then weighs the options.

“He would then consult with those department heads and examine weather reports, and then start contacting officials at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the school system” Wolff said.

LANL has just more than 10,000 employees and Los Alamos Public Schools has about 3,500 students, Guiding the decisions of the decision makers is safety and timing.

“People need to appreciate how many conversations happen in a short amount of time between all the stakeholders,” LAPS Superintendent Gene Schmidt said.

For instance, he said, while there are some who questioned why school was even opened in the first place Friday, it all has to do with coordination between LANL and LAPS.

Schmidt said when a weather event is coming that may impact the schools, his job is to basically stay up all night communicating with LANL about what they’re going to do in the morning. Some days it’s easy, he said, but other days like Friday, where it didn’t even start to snow until around a little after 5 a.m., made the decision all the more difficult.

“4:30 a.m. is about the time we start making decisions,” he said, adding that when snow suddenly began coming down heavily at 7 a.m., LANL officials called him at work and said they were going to close.

That left the two big organizations with a bit of a balancing act, as the buses and the lab commuters were already out on the roads.

“We agreed that the lab needed to be released first so there would be adults at home when the kids arrived,” Schmidt said.

That’s why the lab closed at 8:30 a.m. and LAPS students remained at school until mid-morning to be released.

“By then, the roads would be clear and the commuters would be out of the way,” said Schmidt, adding that a proper accounting of all the students teachers and other school employees could be completed by that time and it could be officially declared a half day. And yes, there was a logical reason behind why elementary schools were released first at 10 a.m. and middle school and high school students were dismissed at 10:30 a.m.

“The reason why we staggered the times is because we don’t have enough buses to load everyone at the same time,” Schmidt said. “So, the elementary school kids would go first and the middle school and high school students would follow.”

But it also had a lot to do with safety, too.

“There’s safety involved too because the lab, the schools and the county recognizes we don’t want everybody out on the highway at the same time, and the county would like a few minutes between the release of lab employees and school students to plow the roads to make it safe for our buses,” Schmidt said.

LANL Spokesman Fred DeSousa said the situation is also very complex for them, as employees come to lab not just by car, but by public transportation as well.

Much of the planning happens before a single flake of snow or piece of hail touches the ground.

“It starts very often a day or perhaps days before when we know a weather system is going to be coming in,” DeSousa said.

When it gets to be on the eve of the system’s arrival, LANL goes through a checklist that includes road conditions, the weather forecast and other signposts to help the 10,000 employee organization make a decision.

“If it’s already started, we look at how well our emergency crews are keeping up with it. We look at traffic cameras and see for ourselves what’s happening out there.”

DeSousa said what happened Friday was something lab officials have to deal with too.

“Those of us who live in New Mexico know that the weather can turn very quickly,” he said. “What happened is that it turned when many people were going to work or were at work.”

DeSousa added that all lab closures due to weather are routinely put under the microscope to see if there’s room for improvement.

“Every time an event like this occurs, we evaluate how we responded to it,” DeSousa said. “...I’m sure an evaluation like that will happen this time, and if there are lessons to be learned, we’ll take the appropriate action.”