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How the U issues weather alerts

Springtime in Utah routinely swings from balmy to a blizzard, and the wild weather of early 2023 has been particularly unpredictable.

Preparing a 1,500-acre campus—and the 50 to 60,000 students, faculty and staff who study, teach and work there every day—for exceptional winter weather requires research, a lot of planning and, in the end, a bit of prognostication.

And sometimes, the snow doesn’t come.

This week, the University of Utah’s Emergency Management team issued two weather alerts—one pushing classes to remote learning on Monday, the other returning to “normal” campus operations on Tuesday—that didn’t seem to match the snow on the ground. Monday’s storm petered out, and Tuesday’s raged into the evening, dumping feet of snow throughout the Salt Lake Valley.

The seemingly disconnected guidelines left many on campus frustrated.

“We know that people feel the decisions were inconsistent,” said Sarah Projansky, associate vice president for faculty. “We think the decisions and messages have been clear. The problem is that the definitive message doesn’t always seem to match what we see when we look out the window.”

The Spring 2023 semester is already unusual. The state of Utah set a record for snow-water equivalency this year, hitting 29.4 inches on April 4. And Alta Ski Resort broke the 800-inch mark for the first time ever the week before.

So, with winter weather still possible this spring, the U’s emergency managers offered a look into how the decision to issue an alert is made when the National Weather Service Issues a Winter Storm Advisory:

  • First, a team of campus leaders from across campus—including academic affairs, auxiliary services, communications, environmental health and safety, facilities, general counsel, housing, hospitals and clinics, human resources, information technology, public health, public safety and student affairs—meet to discuss the forecast. Others from outside campus may also join the call to discuss conditions and snow removal on the streets and highways leading to campus.
  • Next, based on the forecast (the expected timing of the most intense precipitation, the path of the storm and changes in temperature and wind), travel impacts and assessments of U facilities crews’ ability to clear campus roads, sidewalks and parking lots, the group considers three options:
    • Scheduling a late start to classes, child care centers and other campus operations.
    • Moving all but essential functions to remote platforms.
    • Or, rarely, calling a “snow day” (the last was in 2020).
  • Finally, an urgent alert message is written and sent out via text and email to the campus community.

Emergency managers note one caveat: With an academic medical center (including multiple health care clinics and a Level 1 trauma center hospital), thousands of students living on campus and child care centers that students and employees alike depend on, the University of Utah campus never technically “closes.”

“The safety of each member of our campus community is always our first consideration,” said Keith Squires, chief safety officer. “At the same time, keeping our housing and residential education buildings; hospitals and clinics; and laboratories, libraries and gathering spaces safe 24 hours a day requires us to be open for business—even in a blizzard.”

Both of this week’s weather alerts were issued the night before the storms hit—a change from previous alerts, which typically have been sent early in the morning when many employees, students and instructors are already on their way to campus, said Stuart Moffatt, interim director of Emergency Management.

“In an effort to give everyone on campus more time to plan for how or if they would come to campus, we did our best risk analysis,” Moffatt added. “The snow hadn’t yet started to fall.”

With forecasting storm impacts an inexact science, the alerts encourage all instructors to be flexible with students who have difficulty getting to campus. The university draws folks from different parts of northern Utah with distinct weather that can be impacted by “Lake Effect” snow, canyon winds and even some microclimate patterns.

“Every professor and instructor should feel empowered to look out the window and make a common-sense decision regarding whether to teach remotely or cancel their classes,” Projansky said.

Human Resources leaders echo the same guidance for supervisors. Academic and nonacademic managers should use the same flexibility during unusual weather events to implement remote work and staggered schedules that were expanded and refined during and after the COVID-19 pandemic years.

“Nothing is worth putting lives at risk, or having a catastrophic car accident,” said Jeff Herring, chief human resources officer.