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A tale of two storms

Student walking past large snow removal equipment on WSU Pullman sidewalk.
Members of the WSU community are advised to monitor the WSU Crisis Communication System and their campus alert advisories for operational changes in the event of severe weather.

By Eric Sorensen, WSU News

It snowed a lot last Monday and WSU Pullman classes were cancelled.

It snowed a lot two days later and Pullman classes weren’t cancelled.

Which had a lot of people asking, “What gives?”

WSU Pullman Police Chief Bill Gardner understands their confusion.

“I get that; completely get that,” he said recently. “But as far as the condition of campus goes, it was a totally different story” one storm to the next.

Deciding when, and if, campus operations throughout the WSU system need to be altered involves teams of experts evaluating a range of variables, some of which can change suddenly at any time. Each of WSU’s campuses has its own process for evaluating conditions and deciding whether to cancel classes, alter normal operations or proceed without interruption.

Although the university’s campuses in Tri‑Cities, Everett and Spokane also had weather-related delays and closures during the past couple of weeks, the Pullman closure on Monday drew national attention as news organizations included it as an example of how harsh the Pacific Northwest winter had become.

Gardner is part of the weather triage team in Pullman that includes representatives from university facilities, transportation, emergency management and the president’s office. Team members confer by phone at 4:45 a.m. whenever significant snow is in the forecast for that day.

They’ll discuss topics such as the conditions of campus parking lots, sidewalks and roads, as well as roads in the city and county, and recommend to the president and his policy group whether regular campus operations should be delayed or suspended for the day.

“And really,” Gardner said, “when we talk about being operational, we’re really talking first about whether we can make the campus operational, and then we talk about what the surrounding region looks like in terms of getting people in and out.”

To be sure, this process is not guaranteed to run like a Swiss watch.

“This is dealing with weather,” Gardner noted, “and so it’s not a perfect science.”

Moreover, the University is predisposed to running, as noted in its December Reminder for Inclement Weather:

“The presumption is that, if campus is safe, we remain open. We have a finite number of classes and expectations for instructional delivery, as well as a commitment to proper use of state resources, that should push us to remain open whenever possible.”

There are other reasons that WSU Pullman never truly closes, even in bad weather, according to Phil Weiler, vice president for marketing and communications and a member of weather policy group. “WSU Pullman is a residential campus. We have thousands of people who live here. We need to make sure that the power remains on, furnaces are functioning and dining facilities are operating,” he said. “In addition, as a research university, we have any number of research projects underway that must be tended to, even if the weather is uncooperative,” Weiler added.

Snow covered stairway closed off with sign reading 'No snow maintenance. No pedestrian access.'
Snow closes some stairways on WSU Pullman campus. (Photo by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services)

As it happened, Monday had a lot of powdery snow drifting in heavy winds, making some county roads impassable. Only about 20 percent of the campus parking lots and none of the sidewalks were clear. Opening the Pullman campus would have filled parking lots with cars, making the lots harder to clear and putting facilities workers behind as even more snow approached.

“We tried to get it clear so we could have school,” said Gardner, “but we just weren’t going to make it so we chose that day to try and keep ahead, because we knew we had a rough week coming.”

Wednesday’s snow was heavier and less prone to drifting. Plows were able to clear the main roads. Crews managed to clear most parking lots and sidewalks, so the campus had normal operations.

That said, individual experiences will vary, which is why the university reminds everyone to take their own personal safety into account when deciding whether to travel to and from campus.

“One of the chief issues for us is we are not making decisions for each individual,” Gardner said. “We are making a decision about the ability of campus to function and when people look out their window and say, ‘I can’t get out,’ they need to make those decisions as individuals, because I certainly can’t make that decision for 26,000 people given everywhere that they live, what roads they’re on and how far away they are.”

The university’s inclement weather policy takes into account that individual circumstances can differ and directs students to work with their professors on making any necessary arrangements.

Human Resource Services also has an Inclement Weather & Suspended Operations website with helpful information.

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