Snowmageddon: Getting Rid of All That White Stuff

For BU, coordination, organization is key

By Amy Laskowski

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See scenes above from snowstorms at BU. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

It’s 4:30 on Tuesday morning. Bill Walter is up, responding to emails, making phone calls, and gearing up to orchestrate yet another snow removal on the BU campus. The snow has been falling heavily since the previous night, and forecasters are predicting up to a foot in the Boston area. It is the city’s seventh major storm this winter, but Walter, Facilities Management & Planning assistant vice president for operations and services, has been orchestrating snow removal on campus for 32 years, and he and his team have the process down to a science.

“Our cleanup plan is based on the previous storms, current weather conditions, and the storm predictions,” Walter says. “We’ve been doing this for many years.”

That expertise has been especially crucial this year, with Boston receiving 71 inches of snow to date, nearly double the average for an entire season. And there’s more scheduled to arrive tomorrow night.

So far this winter, Walter says, his department has deployed 5,000 bags of the anti-icer magnesium chloride (1,000 bags just this week) and close to 500 tons of rock salt (30 tons in the past seven days alone). Walter’s arsenal includes four dump and plow trucks, five pickup truck plows, two sander trucks, two payloaders, three smaller plow and snowblower combination units, two sidewalk plows, three Bobcats, almost 100 snowblowers and power brushes, and 700 shovels, which have a shelf life of about three years. Hundreds of employees are necessary to man all that equipment, and that doesn’t even begin to include the outside contract workers hired on as needed.

Those in charge of digging out BU say they rely on constant forecast updates in designing their strategy.

The decision whether or not to close the University is made by Peter Fiedler, the vice president for administrative services. He, too, is up early on mornings when snow is forecast, scouring weather reports and checking his iPad for up-to-the-minute developments. Fiedler (COM’77) keeps a National Weather Service emergency alert radio on his desk so he can listen to the latest weather predictions on days like this. “We get a lot of good data, so it makes it easier to make decisions, whether we need to close or delay,” he says. “I enjoy predicting the weather; it’s actually fun to do. It’s like a puzzle.”

BU has been certified by the National Weather Service as a “StormReady University,” a distinction given to schools that have a strong weather readiness plan in place. Among the criteria, a school must have a center manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so that it can implement emergency procedures in the event of severe weather. It is also required to have at least three different ways to monitor weather, among them websites, emailed reports, and the National Weather Service emergency alert radio.

Whether or not classes and University activities are held, Facilities Management & Planning must still shovel, plow, sand, and salt streets, sidewalks, and parking lots, and ensure that buildings’ electricity and heat are working.

Most of the gritty task of snow removal falls to a crew of more than 400 employees. This often means working throughout the night and 12-to-16-hour shifts, with breaks as needed. To prevent exhaustion, workers who begin their shift shoveling may be assigned to drive a truck later in the shift. These workers are among the over 700 facilities and grounds people who ensure that the University runs properly, whether doing carpentry, plumbing work, or electrical repair. What’s more, these employees are designated “essential personnel”—meaning they must report even if the University closes.

In the early hours of a snowfall, heavy equipment, like plows, is deployed to tackle the streets, parking lots, and even sidewalks when necessary. Directly behind them is the custodial staff, shoveling, salting, and sanding the sidewalks and stairs of BU’s 133 acres of campus. They use heavy-duty snowblowers and power brushes and shovels to clear paths. Staff must also plow and shovel Nickerson Field so that athletic teams can continue to hold practice regardless of how many inches fall.

During the height of a storm, Walter can often be found driving around campus with Tom Daley, the associate vice president of Facilities Management & Planning. They assess the situation, calling dispatch to report a walkway that needs clearing, a flight of stairs that needs deicing, or broken equipment that needs fixing. A mechanic is on hand 24 hours a day for repairs, and new pieces of equipment are added regularly.

“Emails are often arriving throughout the night with storm updates and plans for the next day,” Daley says.

It’s when a storm has ended that the cleanup team’s work really begins, according to Walter. “We have to put the ice melt down, widen streets and parking spots,” he says. “We send the big sanders out on the street, and workers go out to distribute sand and ice-melt chemicals.” Eco-friendly materials are used near lawns and trees.

With any heavy snowfall, there is always the risk of a collapsed roof. Walter makes sure that roofing contractors check roofs regularly. So far this season, there has been no reported structural damage. The biggest problem this year, he says, has been shoveling off roofs to prevent ice damming and water damage when the snow finally melts.

Workers are also deployed on “icicle watch.” Walter says that the icicles hanging from buildings “could fall and hurt someone, so we have a program where people go out and observe the icicles, and carefully remove them if necessary.”

Where does all the snow go? It gets piled up at snow staging sites across campus, including parking lots on West Campus and at the end of Harry Agganis Way. The snow is brought to a parking lot on Babcock Street before huge dump trucks cart it away to snow farms, large open areas where snow can be dumped, around Massachusetts. The team estimates that they have removed 21,000 cubic yards of snow so far this year.

Given this winter’s repeated blizzards, the budget for snow removal is strained. Facilities Management & Planning and Parking & Transportation Services manage a high six-figure snow removal budget, based on historical averages, Walter says. “Right now we’re close to the end of the budget, but we’re working with senior administration to project how the fiscal year will end and will seek additional funding if necessary.”

Walter and Daley are the first to say that snow removal at BU is a team enterprise. “It’s not the amount of snow,” Daley says, but that “it’s continuous. There are a lot of dedicated people who regularly work quietly behind the scenes to keep BU running.”

Among many they single out for praise are trucking manager Bob O’Toole and Ray Bourgeois, manager of grounds and the masonry shop, who both oversee the heavy equipment and the plowing operations. Carlos Vazquez, director of custodial operations, manages the over 400 custodians who operate the snowblowers, power brushes, and shovels.

The Medical Campus has its own separate grounds crew, which is also responsible for clearing Boston Medical Center.

During a snowstorm, a homeowner might wait for a storm to be over to start shoveling, says Walter, “but we can’t wait. There are almost 11,000 people, both undergrads and grads, living on campus that we need to dig out.”

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.