Every year around this time, the University of Idaho goes to work trying to keep the campus running as safely and smoothly as possible.
Charles Zillinger, director of landscape and exterior services, said removing snow and ice is an important step in keeping campus safe.
Zillinger said snow and ice can cause traffic accidents or slipping and falling – things that can potentially lead to serious injury or death. The university must remain operating during the winter months, so those dangers must be minimized, he said.
“The university still has business to perform and so we try to accommodate that business, but we don”t want anybody getting hurt doing it,” Zillinger said.
The snow, Zillinger said, must be removed as quickly as possible to prevent snow compaction. If snow is left on roads and walkways, it will become compacted by cars or pedestrians, he said.
When temperatures drop again, Zillinger said this snow becomes a sheet of ice which creates highly hazardous conditions and is nearly impossible to remove.
There are three different groups which handle snow removal on campus, Zillinger said. Two are within UI Facilities Services – Landscape and Exterior Services and Building Services.
The third is what are known as auxiliary groups, Zillinger said, which include things like University Housing and the VandalStore. He said these groups handle the maintenance of their own entryways and surrounding grounds.
Roughly 40 people are employed by Facilities Services to handle snow removal, though the number can be higher or lower depending on the amount of snowfall, Zillinger said.
The university has multiple snowplows, Zillinger said, ranging from small tractors for clearing walkways to heavy-duty, 5-ton trucks for plowing heavy snowfall. UI also maintains assorted machines for spreading various materials on walkways.
Zillinger said they use rocks and sand for traction, salt for deicing and a chemical called magnesium chloride that is spread on walkways beforehand and prevents ice from forming.
Zillinger said the difficulty of removing snow from campus depends on several factors, including how much snow fell on campus. He said it”s easier to plow two inches of snow rather than six inches, for example.
When there is heavy snowfall, Zillinger said there is a need for larger equipment and more time is needed to clear the snow.
Zillinger said the timing of the snow is another factor. He said it”s easier to handle if the snowfall occurs late the previous evening or early in the morning, so that the campus is not crowded and the snow can be cleared before classes start.
The goal is typically to clear the campus by 8 a.m. When snow falls while classes are in session, Zillinger said it is more difficult to clear roads on campus due to the large numbers of pedestrians on the walkways and roads. Removal must be slowed down for safety reasons, he said.
Zillinger said people are generally satisfied with the work the snow removal team does. He said they do the best they can to get the snow removed, even in bad weather conditions and on tight deadlines.
Most people understand the limitations of what can be done, he said. While Zillinger said snow removal employees do what they can to make the campus as safe as possible, winter conditions will always be a bit more hazardous than other times of year.
Zillingr said people should always be more cautious when walking on campus in winter.
“The main responsibility for their welfare still lies with themselves,” Zillinger said.
Whether or not the university gets a snow day depends on the severity of the snowstorm, Zillinger said.
It takes particularly severe conditions for the university to cancel classes, he said, and the decision to close the campus is made by upper administration, not Facilities Services.
Facilities reports on the conditions and will make recommendations to administrators, Zillinger said, but the administration makes the final decision.
Because of low visibility in storm conditions, Zillinger said it is much easier and safer to clear the snow during the day. He said closing the campus also has the benefit of clearing the campus of people and traffic, so that the large snowplows can operate without obstructions.
Because such severe storms are rare, Zillinger said snow days are uncommon at the university. He only remembers two or three snow days during his 19 years working at the university.
During the 2008 snowstorm, Zillinger said that snow fell for two days, piling up has fast as they could plow it and it was ultimately decided that the campus couldn”t be kept clear in those conditions.
“We had started 48 hours before and it just kept coming, kept coming, kept coming,” Zillinger said.
Zillinger said he thinks a snow day is unlikely this year and expects conditions to be similar to last winter. Last winter snow removal employees only came in early in the morning to clear snow twice and the rest of the snowfall happened happened during the day, but it was so minor that it was cleared quickly without major disruption.
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