Independent Report on the Mid-February 2007 Winter Storm Response for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Immediately after the storm had passed, the Governor of Pennsylvania held a press conference to express his concern that the state’s emergency response was flawed. He called for an independent investigator to review the state’s preparations for and response to the emergency, the communications between state agencies and the traveler information systems. The resulting investigation revealed multiple problems in the preparation for severe winter weather and the management of its response. The Lesson Learned below highlights the independent investigator's key findings on the Commonwealth's transportation operations and readiness.
The report from the independent investigation of Pennsylvania’s response to the winter storm included recommendations involving transportation planning, operations and management. Key lessons from that investigation are as follows:
- Ensure that the state DOT has an adequate number of snow plow operators to operate available plows in winter weather emergencies. Staffing guidelines and practices for local DOT offices should be reviewed and followed with oversight at the district level. Obviously, without a sufficient number of operators to operate snow plows, roads will not be cleared. In the case of the 2007 winter storm in Pennsylvania, a shortage of snow plow operators resulted in a 12-hour operational period in which there were not enough operators to man the snow plows in one of the counties. It is necessary for local and district level DOT offices to review staffing levels on a periodic basis and confirm that a sufficient number of operators are on staff during winter storms.
- Subscribe to a weather forecasting service on a state-wide basis. State DOTs that subscribe to a weather forecasting service gain the benefit of having all the state DOT offices with access to current, detailed weather information. PennDOT did not subscribe to a weather service during the 2007 storm. The lack of access to a uniform, detailed forecasting service across the state DOT offices led to a diminished situational awareness for some districts, reducing transportation preparedness and response.
- Include staff with strong experience in managing and responding to winter storms. Having personnel and management with experience in preparing for and managing transportation operations in winter storms provides state agencies with a big advantage. When the winter storm of 2007 in Pennsylvania hit, few of the transportation managers had experience with winter storms. (In fact, a management team in one of the counties had served the office for less than a month because the former team had retired one month earlier.) The independent investigator concluded that lack of experience in storm response hurt the ability of PennDOT to manage the response.
- Maintain DOT information systems and confirm that they function as intended. At the time of the storm, Pennsylvania had roadway and traffic information systems in place, including a Roadway Weather Information System (RWIS) designed to improve PennDOT’s awareness of road and traffic conditions statewide. However, at the time of the storm, 55 of the 74 sensor sites in the RWIS were inoperable, severely limiting the situational awareness of PennDOT management. The investigator noted that the system had not been maintained prior to the storm.
- Ensure that traveler information systems are updated during emergency events. A key element of a state’s response to a severe weather event is providing accurate, useful and timely information to the public. PennDOT had several means of communication with the public, including electronic highway information signs (dynamic message signs), a highway information phone line, a website and a Highway Advisory Radio system. Unfortunately, there were problems or limitations with each of these systems. For example, electronic highway information signs were either inoperable or not updated with current information; the phone line did not have current information and at times used a default message which indicated that roadway conditions were normal; the website presented inaccurate information, and the Highway Advisory Radio in District 5-0 did not work during the storm.
The storm of February 2007 brought a treacherous mix of ice, freezing rain and snow that severely hampered travel on the primary and secondary roads in much of Pennsylvania. The state had received advance warning of the storm from the National Weather Service, but the weather conditions in Pennsylvania were unique and challenged the ability of state agencies to respond to the storm. An independent investigator identified key areas of improvement for the state’s emergency response agencies, including the state DOT. Pennsylvania's experience provides lessons learned for other state and local DOTs, and serves to remind elected officials, emergency responders and transportation managers of the need to review (and revise if needed) staffing guidelines for severe weather; subscribe to weather forecasting services to access up-to-date weather information; provide training for managers in the management of transportation operations in severe weather (or utilize managers with such experience); maintain transportation information systems; and ensure that the public has access to current storm and traffic-related information by updating dynamic signs, DOT websites, DOT phone lines and Highway Advisory Radio systems. These lessons require that states put into practice an on-going planning and maintenance program designed to prepare the state for winter storms and to ensure safety and mobility of motorists.