Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

Story Vault

By Audrey Fraizer

Neither fright from rain nor snow, nor a storm’s lid on visibility, puts Lapeer County Central Dispatch in Michigan right there with the U.S. Postal Service when it comes to unstoppable delivery.

Nevermind temperatures of -10 F (not counting the wind chill factor) or three days of high winds blowing needle-sharp ice crystals this past December and January, making roads virtually impassable and obscuring visibility to sometimes less than a quarter of a mile despite the frequent passes of county snowplows.

At the worst of low temperatures and bands of heavy lake-effect snowfall—when Old Man Winter was at his feistiest—Victor Martin, Lapeer Dispatch’s communication center director, didn’t pick up the phone to request extra assistance. Honestly, he hadn’t anticipated it would come to that.

“My dispatchers are amazing,” said Martin, former commander of Bay City Post with the Michigan State Police. “They rise to the occasion. They do what’s needed automatically without having anyone asking.”

By sake of its location, Michigan was among the first states in a long line from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast slammed by teeth-chattering temperatures and heavy snow caused by a twist in the “polar vortex” of strong winds that circulate around the North Pole. By Tuesday, Jan. 7, the icy air covered about half the U.S., crushing records that in some cases had stood for more than a century. An estimated 190 million people were affected and 21 deaths were later blamed on record cold.

But Lapeer County Central Dispatch was ready.

Martin brought in extra people and set up cots for dispatchers staying overnight and working 12 hours in anticipation of the first round of storms that hit on Dec. 24. They celebrated Christmas and the next two days of below-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall, handling a call volume that was triple the 30-40 calls normally received during any given shift. Callers reported a few cases of exposure and frostbite, but for the most part, people stayed inside and kept travel to a minimum.

The worst part was the ice—the arctic blast that followed the snow.

“We get snow, so that wasn’t unusual,” Martin said. “It was the cold, cold weather with it that made things difficult. In 1977, we had a ton of snow. The state shutdown for two days, but it never got this cold. I’ve never seen it this cold in all the years I’ve been here.”

The extreme cold froze pipes, stopped power, and turned roads into skating rinks.

“Roads would open, and we’d have to shut them down again,” Martin said. “This wasn’t the black ice that’s hard to see. This was an actual layer of ice on the roads. A lot of people abandoned their cars and wreckers refused to go out. They just had to leave them there.”

The county road commission was connected to the dispatch radio frequency and notified immediately whenever a road had to be cleared for emergency operations. On more than one occasion, county road crews pulled ambulances out of snowdrifts.

When the power went down, the fire department posted addresses for warming shelters and asked that residents check on the welfare of elderly neighbors. People sat out the outage in their cars parked outside of the garage, running engines and cranking up the heat to stay warm rather than stay indoors with a furnace that wouldn’t fire up.

“It’s the ‘I-can-handle-this’ attitude that gets us through every time,” Martin said. “I have the highest praise for my dispatchers, the road commission, and fire, police, and EMS.”

John Ferraro, executive director of West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center in River Forest, Ill., and an ENP, gave instructions to his staff to bone up on the winter-related Medical Protocols, particularly MPDS Protocol 20: Heat/Cold Exposure, in preparation for incoming calls regarding symptoms of hypothermia and other cold weather conditions.

River Forest, which lies along the Des Plaines River in western Cook County, averages temp-eratures in the mid to high 20s F in December and January and snow accumulations of around 8 to 10 inches.

Not this past year.

River Forest saw a record low of -15 F. The National Weather Service cautioned people to stay indoors, if possible, and if venturing outside, to dress for conditions. Anyone stuck outside for any length of time was at serious risk of injury or death.

Ferraro said 15 inches of snow fell in the first three days of January, and that was piled on top of snow from three storms in December. Temperatures falling far below freezing and snow worked in cahoots to stall rail commuters. Frozen switches and signals caused long delays and cancellations. Amtrak hosted 500 passengers overnight on three trains stuck 80 miles from Chicago. Transit riders’ faces and fingers froze while standing on a platform waiting for their trains to arrive.

They were, perhaps, the lucky ones. The roads were hazardous.

“The calls came in bunches,” Ferraro said. “There was a ton of ice because crews couldn’t clear the roads to pavement. We had sheets of ice.”

Ferraro modified the dress code, allowing dispatchers to wear street clothes, including flannel and fleece, rather than uniforms, to protect against the colder temperatures to and from work and to make “things more comfortable” during the extreme weather snap.

For the most part, however, call volume was near normal, and although he had people on-call just in case, the extra help wasn’t necessary.

“We had a few more calls with complaints of chest pain from shoveling big, slushy, heavy snow, but nothing major,” Ferraro said. “Chicago takes pride in its resiliency. We know how to handle it.”

Southern states were also bracing for the coldest temperatures in decades. The Tennessee Valley Authority said power demand reached the second-highest winter peak in its history. Temperatures averaged 4 F across the utility’s seven-state region.

Residents were urged to prepare for possible power outages and frozen pipes, advised to bring pets indoors, and asked to check on elderly neighbors, making sure they were adequately situated to combat the cold weather. They were cautioned in the use of space heaters, fireplaces, or wood stoves to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

The front hit Alabama on Sunday (Jan. 5) night, plummeting temperatures by at least 20 degrees in just a few hours. Below-freezing temperatures accompanied by excessive wind chill factors squeezed temperatures in Alabama, including Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, to record lows. On Monday and Tuesday mornings, temperatures dropped into single digits, bringing wind chills below zero.

The cold changed the daily routine considerably, at least for the period it hung around, said Richard Schreiber, communication center manager of NorthStar Emergency Medical Services in Tuscaloosa.

“The City of Tuscaloosa Fire Department had to add an extra battalion chief to help with all the water pipes that were bursting,” Schreiber said. “Unofficially, there were 68 water flow alarms that occurred in two days. The cold was phenomenal for us, near zero, and that’s like the Arctic for us.”

Schreiber put the center in prevention mode, putting team members on standby. He prepared the second floor conference room for dispatch team members to stay overnight, if necessary, and was ready to coordinate everything from hot meals to a way to drive to work, if needed. Schreiber went on to say, “I am fortunate to have a great dispatch team to work with. One or two phone calls and we have whatever we need.”

Schreiber was ready, just like he was in April 2011 when the big tornado hit.

“You want to make sure you have everything ready; you never know what may come from an event,” he said.

Freezing weather, winds, and even some snow hit Atlanta, Ga., in January. A wind chill advisory was issued for 11 a.m. Monday, Jan. 6, through 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 7, for the metro area; temperatures were expected to dip into the 20s on Monday and down to single digits by Tuesday.

Public works crews implemented Atlanta’s Level II Storm Response Plan, placing pre-treatment priority on bridges and overpasses, main arterial roads for hospitals, and police stations. Schools closed. Fire units brought extra stretchers into hospitals, ready to toggle patients if demand for care outpaced beds or the number of ambulances available for transport.

“Sunday through Tuesday was tough for Tuscaloosa,” Schreiber said. “Rain was followed by the arctic blast. Temperatures dropped 20 degrees in a half hour early Sunday morning. It got colder here than it was in Anchorage, Alaska.”

The issue of cold prompted Dave O’Neill, director of Metro Atlanta Ambulance Service’s communication center in Marietta, Ga., to end his holiday break four days early. He issued fleece-lined winter jackets to his dispatchers and brought in Monday crews on Sunday to save them a morning commute on potentially icy roads and to handle an anticipated increase in the number of calls.

Surprisingly, call volume remained close to usual, although the types of calls were different from the norm. There were more calls related to falls from slipping on ice and colder weather exposure symptoms.

Traffic accidents increased, but that wasn’t the fault of road crews. Drivers were sometimes too cautious or too curious.

“People in Atlanta don’t have enough experience with this kind of weather,” said O’Neill, who’s originally from upstate New York. “This was being called ‘The Storm of the Century.’ I wasn’t worried but I also didn’t want to be the public service highlighted in metro news.”

Temperatures around the country moderated by the end of the week, bringing the 20s and 30s into the Plains and Midwest, while parts of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast were again in the 40s.

Will the polar vortex return?

“I couldn’t tell you,” Martin said. “If it does, we’ll be prepared the same as this time.”