Feb. 26 decision-making helps put one commuter in a ditch
By Chelsea Hess-Moore
INDIANA - On Friday morning, Feb. 26, Andrew Wojcik checked the weather before beginning a daily 50-mile commute from his home in Altoona to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he is a journalism student. The forecast did not look good:
Snow showers, high winds, 18 degrees.
More of the same. Already that week, southwestern Pennsylvania had been hit with the first of a one-two punch of snow and ice. The winter was well on its way to becoming one of the worst on record in the region.
On Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 24, the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh had issued a winter storm warning - upgraded from a watch - to cover the period from early Thursday morning through 6 a.m. Saturday in southwestern Pennsylvania. "Severe winter conditions will occur across these counties," the weather service predicted. "Snowfall will be heavy and accompanied by gusty winds that will also cause considerable blowing and drifting snow."
On Friday morning, as Wojcik prepared for his commute, the Associated Press was reporting that Pittsburgh had recorded its snowiest month since record-keeping began in 1884. In Indiana County, more than three feet had fallen since Feb. 1. Nearly five and a half feet had fallen on the county that winter. The Weather Channel's Web site warned motorists against unnecessary travel.
Wojcik was anxious about another harrowing ride over roads in the Allegheny Mountains. He checked IUP's Web site to see whether university officials had seen the same warnings and cancelled classes.
Maybe they had seen the warnings. But they hadn't cancelled classes.
Wojcik set out early for school. He didn't make it. His car slid into a ditch.
It was not until later that morning that he received a text message from the university announcing that Friday afternoon classes had been cancelled.
"I think I received the text about three hours after I had my car pulled out of the ditch," Wojcik said in an April 22 e-mail interview. "I believe I was sitting on my couch wishing I had some sort of nerve medicine."
The notice came too late for Wojcik. It was not the first time. Two weeks earlier on Tuesday, Feb. 9, IUP had cancelled classes after they had already begun. The next day's classes also were cancelled, in advance. The university closed down entirely on Thursday, Feb. 11.
It was an exceptional month at an institution where the default inclement-weather policy is literally business-as-usual. The policy states, in part: "IUP's practice will be to remain open and to conduct business as usual during periods of inclement weather."
Terry Appolonia, IUP's dean of students and associate vice president for student affairs, sent the e-mails notifying students, faculty and staff of February's school closings and class cancellations. He said William P. Montgomery, chief of campus police and director of public safety, is one of the handful university brass who administer the inclement-weather policy.
"Mr. Montgomery is responsible for maintaining the system," Appolonia said in April 2 an e-mail. "The e-mails I sent were on behalf of those persons responsible for making weather-related safety decisions."
Montgomery said he is one member of a panel of seven IUP administrators responsible for advising IUP President Tony Atwater on "weather-related safety decisions." The panel's advice is based on the "forecast, how much snow, how long it will last, previous weather conditions and the ability to remove the snow," Montgomery said in an April 8 interview in his office in University Towers.
Montgomery said he is the university's coordinator of emergency-operation plans.
"I am linked in with the National Weather Bureau, and I receive updates every four hours when bad weather approaches," said Montgomery.
Despite the upgrade to a winter storm watch issued by the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Feb 24, to cover the period from Feb. 25 at 6 a.m. through Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. (a period that included Wojcik's fateful Friday-morning decision to head for campus), IUP did not cancel classes until 12:20 p.m. on Feb. 26, according to an e-mail sent by Appolonia that day at 11:27 a.m.
"Everything hit so quick," said Montgomery. "We didn't have time to react."
He added that more than 9,000 text messages were sent out in nine minutes. Notices to email addresses, news media and television monitors in IUP residence halls followed soon after.
Christine Calhoun, 51, is a commuter student at IUP. She lives in White Township behind Indiana High School. On the morning of Feb. 26, she didn't think it was safe for students who live on campus to walk to classes in those conditions, let alone to expect commuters to drive in them.
"I seriously feel as though the university simply doesn't want to cancel classes because they want to get their days in," said Calhoun in an April 1 interview in the IUP library.
Calhoun's statement is true, Montgomery said.
"You don't want to cancel classes if you don't have to because that affects all the students," said Montgomery.
Chelsea Hess-Moore, a sophomore majoring in journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Steelton, Pa.
Sidebar: Who makes the class-cancellation call?
The following IUP administrators are members of a panel that makes "weather-related safety recommendations" to top university officials, according to William P. Montgomery, director of campus public safety, in a June 1 email.
Dr. Rhonda Luckey, vice president for student affairs
Mr. Mark Geletka, interim associate vice president for facilities management
Ms. Helen Kennedy, associate vice president for human resources
Mr. John Veilleux, associate vice president for communications and community
Ms. Michelle Fryling, director of media and public relations
Mr. Douglass Miller, director of facilities operations
Mr. William Montgomery, director of public safety/police
The top brass who receive the panel's advice and make the final call are the president and his vice president for administration and finance, Montgomery said.
"This panel makes the recommendation to the vice president for administration and finance, Dr. Cornelius Wooten, who makes the final decision after speaking with Dr. Tony Atwater, university president," Montgomery said.
Sidebar: IUP's emergency-notification system
IUP campus authorities publish a plan to contact students, staff and faculty in case of emergencies on or near the campus.
All IUP e-mail addresses and university desk phones are added to the system automatically, according to the IUP university police Web site.
Students may sign up for two additional forms of notifications, according to Bill Montgomery, IUP director of public safety:
Reverse 911 service, a voice-messaging system.
2SMS, a text-messaging system.
Both options are free. But standard rates charged by mobile-phone carriers apply to text messages. Registering for one option automatically registers for both, Montgomery said.
The 2SMS option is much faster and more convenient, Montgomery said. Only 2SMS has been used for emergencies so far. But university police hope to have both options working by fall semester 2010.
To register for the Emergency Notification System, log onto URSA and click on the "Emergency Notification System" link on the main menu.
--By Chelsea Hess-Moore
Fast facts: For more information
For more information on this story, contact the following sources:
Director of Public Safety
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
850 Maple Street
Indiana, PA 15705-1087
Dean of Students and Associate Vice President for Student Development
211 Sutton Hall
Indiana, PA 15705