This winter may not have been as harsh as some, but Mother Nature has reminded us what she can dish out—this year, in the form of ice rather than snow.
During late January and mid-February, the University had to suspend many of its operations because sleet and freezing rain blanketed the area and left a dangerous coating of ice on roads, walkways, campus parking areas and building entrances. Classes were canceled, and non-mandatory employees were instructed not to come to campus.
A small army of people throughout Finance and Administration came to work though, to keep the campus community safe and to make sure people could get to and around campus when the University resumed full operations. Most of these employees came in extra early or worked long past the end of their regular shifts to get the job done.
Planning for icy weather starts well before any frozen precipitation falls. Supervisors in areas spanning Grounds, Housekeeping, Building Services, Construction Services, Dining Services, Public Safety and Transportation and Parking keep an eye on what can be a quickly changing forecast days ahead so they can coordinate their efforts across Carolina’s 700-acre campus.
During January, when ice and frigid temperatures hampered normal operations for several days, Grounds crews mixed around 2,000 gallons of brine and began spraying the primary walkways and building entrances a day or two before the sleet and snow were expected. When the forecast changed—and changed again—crews also spread granular ice melt on the steps and walkways.
“We started scraping on Friday and worked through the weekend, but it was Monday before we were able to get things completely clear,” reported Mark Moon, Grounds supervisor. “The biggest problem was that we ended up with much more ice than had been forecast because of all the sleet that fell—three inches in some places—and it stayed cold through the weekend. So it wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that we could move the ice out of the way. Then Mother Nature finally helped out on Monday with some sunshine and warmer temperatures.”
UNC Grounds crews worked shifts of up to 10 hours, with staggered starting times beginning at 5 a.m. They focused on clearing the primary walkways, building entrances and open campus parking lots, excluding decks, garages and visitor lots.
“We know it’s frustrating for people on campus to return and find areas that aren’t completely clear, but we hope they will understand that it takes time to get to everything on a campus this size, especially when you’re dealing with ice,” Moon commented. “Each crew is responsible for a specific area of campus, and they start with the main paths and entrances, then work their way to the secondary ones.”
With 300 main buildings on the Carolina campus, it takes the coordinated work of many people across the division to clear accumulated snow and ice. Some crews tackle the sidewalks and entrances near academic and administrative buildings, while others in the division focus on clearing spaces in and around the residence halls and near the hospital complex. Still others concentrate on making room in parking areas.
“We have a priority list that starts with the hospital, then the residence halls and dining halls,” said Steve Gooch, Grounds-Housing supervisor. “Our work stretches from Baity Hill Student Family Housing off Manning Drive to Spencer Residence Hall on East Franklin Street. There are literally miles of sidewalks to clear plus all the residence hall steps, and that task would be impossible for my 14-man crew without the joint efforts of crews in Housekeeping and Building Maintenance, as well as Grounds.”
The campus’s 32 residence halls range from high-rise buildings that each have one or two main entrances to Odum Village, which has 30 buildings, each with four apartments and two sets of steps and sidewalks.
Keeping those primary entrances clear is a two-stage process. “Before the weather sets in, we apply ice melt on the ADA entrances [those conforming with the Americans with Disabilities Act], and then we go back with shovels after the snow or ice has fallen to clear whatever accumulated,” explained Darius Dixon, director of Housekeeping Services.
He added that after the worst of the weather has passed and people start to come and go, the granular ice melt and slush get tracked in along with mud from flooded grounds, so the focus shifts from clearing entrances to maintaining the buildings. Inside the residence halls, housekeepers also have to keep up with quickly accumulating trash resulting from students being indoors for longer periods.
Adverse weather that hits during the weekend creates its own set of problems.
That was the case in late January, when Housekeeping called in all 24 zone managers, about half of the 48 crew leaders and nearly 300 housekeepers throughout the weekend to work staggered shifts caring for both residence halls and academic buildings—with Assistant Director Herb Richmond orchestrating the massive effort.
People slept on cots in their offices to be sure they were on hand for whatever was needed. “Our people really took ownership and pulled together, just like a football team,” Richmond said.
The people who remain on campus also have to be fed.
Opening Rams Head Dining Hall is the first priority since it is equipped with a generator capable of running the equipment needed to produce mass quantities of food. “Generally speaking, when students are on campus, Rams Head will operate in some capacity,” said Brandon Thomas, Auxiliary Services communications director. “Next on the list is Lenoir Dining Hall.”
“The most difficult aspect of providing food during severe weather involves logistics, both in terms of final staffing capabilities and the menu we can provide based on our staffing,” said Scott Myers, director of food and vending. “Typically we plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
Safety as Top Priority
The safety of the campus community is paramount. With 41,000 faculty, staff and students, the University is like a small town, but with one key difference: Many people, mandatory employees included, have to come in from surrounding areas—some as much as 30 miles away.
“The University operates 24/7, and we have a responsibility to make way for the mandatory employees to do their jobs,” said Cheryl Stout, director of Transportation and Parking. “If we aren’t here, many mandatory employees can’t be here.”
As the department’s name suggests, Transportation and Parking helps ensure that people can get to and around campus safely.
That involves coordination with Chapel Hill Transit to communicate which bus routes and park-and-ride lots are operating, and determining whether the department-operated P2P shuttle can maneuver around campus. It also involves clearing access to parking areas and determining whether the parking facilities themselves are accessible.
“Our P2P drivers are our eyes and ears for knowing how well people can get around campus,” Stout said. “They are able to relay important information about areas that need to be cleared or are dangerous for both walkers and drivers,” she explained.
If a major campus event, such as an ACC basketball game, is scheduled when the University is coping with limited operations or cleanup from adverse weather, employees in Parking Control work hand in hand with the Department of Athletics. They are the legs of the operation, helping to clear parking areas and direct people to them.
Whether the University is operating normally or has had to close because of the severity of conditions, the Department of Public Safety works around the clock to patrol campus and respond to anything that threatens the safety of the University community.
“Our 911 dispatch center is the centerpiece of our safety operations,” said Chief Jeff McCracken, director of Public Safety. “Both our dispatchers and our police officers are mandatory employees, which means they are required to report to work. They know it’s part of this line of work.”
In return, if that calls for arranging a ride or providing food and housing on campus, that’s what the department does. “We will do whatever we need to do to make sure we have people here to look out for the safety of our community,” said McCracken.
Whether they are clearing snow and ice or keeping an eye out for health and safety concerns, the people who work behind the scenes throughout Finance and Administration often put their family lives on hold to keep things running on campus.
They do it willingly because of their dedication to the University. But there’s no doubt that it can be stressful because they’re dealing with many of the same conditions at home that they’re facing on campus.
“We have such dedicated people working in all these areas,” Gooch said. “Often, their kids’ school is canceled and their power at home might have gone out, but they make sure to come to campus so they can keep things running here.”
Most see it simply as part of their jobs and don’t expect anything in return. But a simple, heartfelt thank-you can be pretty powerful.
“Usually people take the time to thank us for what we’re doing,” Richmond said, “and that really makes all the difference!”
Editor’s Note: While this story can’t include everyone across Finance and Administration who pitches in during adverse weather, our hope is that it will serve as an illustration of how staff from many different departments and areas work when conditions are bad to keep the campus community operating and safe.