County officials hash out weather strategy

Better communication between county authorities during snow emergencies was a topic of discussion at the Huntington County Commissioners meeting on Monday, Dec. 14.

Commissioner President Tom Wall cited the numerous phone calls and steps that occur before a snow emergency is declared in Huntington County.

"There's a lot of calling to get something done," Wall said.

Wall invited representatives from the Huntington County Community School Corporation to the meeting to discuss a better communication link between the corporation and the county government.

"The first of the year, the situation was the worst level we could have, and the school corporation had school," said Wall.

HCCSC Superintendent Tracey Shafer said that the school corporation does run its snow emergencies independently of the county, because the school system is county-wide and Huntington County schools need to have as many school days as possible before the ISTEP tests in the spring.

Shafer said he and other school corporation administrators drive throughout the county when severe weather is a threat. They have set 5:45 a.m. as the deadline for making a decision to have a delay, and 7:45 a.m. to decide to cancel school.

"We might be able to run buses ... if the county has a warning," Shafer says.

However, HCCSC also takes into consideration student drivers, particularly those driving to and from Huntington North High School, when making decisions about closing school.

Brandon Taylor, director of Huntington County Emergency Management, said that the state and National Weather Service also communicate with Huntington County if a severe winter weather event is expected to hit the region.

When determining the level of emergency, Taylor said, "If we're on the fence, we'll kick up a level because we can get FEMA reimbursement."

Huntington County Highway Department Superintendent Troy Hostetler said that his department has employees on standby if severe weather is forecasted. The Huntington County Sheriff's Department is responsible for contacting the highway department if officers notice deteriorating road and weather conditions during patrols.

The current snow emergency ordinance, which was put into effect in 2007, created four distinct levels of alerts and introduced fines for citizens who do not obey the emergency order.

A "caution" is issued when unfavorable conditions exist in some isolated areas that inhibit travel. There are no travel restrictions at the caution stage, but citizens are asked to keep changing weather patterns in mind.

The "level 3 - watch" is the next step in the plan, and may restrict travel in some areas of the county. Schools may begin emergency action plans at this stage.

A "level 2 - warning" is declared when weather conditions are threatening to the public. Schools, businesses and government agencies should have been informed by the time a level 2 emergency is enacted.

A "level 1 - declared emergency" represents the worst level the county can have. All travel is restricted except for emergency vehicles.

Violations of the ordinance are punishable by a $100 fine, and the Indiana state court system can force the violator to repay any monetary losses or expenses of Huntington County related to the incident.

Shafer said that the school corporation is experimenting with mass phone calls for parents in the event of an emergency. In addition, the county is planning to place the current weather emergency status on the county's Web site, www.huntington.in.us. The school system will then link its Web site with the county's.

Both these steps are planned to avoid the flood of phone calls to school, city and county offices in snow emergencies.