Monday, February 24, 2003

Snow emergency call may be dumped locally

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The "Level 3" snow emergency may have become an endangered species in southwest Ohio.

Closings & delays
Weather forecast, radar
Traffic conditions
Weather conditions rarely justify them. And after the recent hassles and confusion, some sheriffs are even more reluctant to declare a Level 3, which closes roads to nonessential travel and makes violators subject to misdemeanor criminal charges.

"This is not something we will probably be doing in the future too often at all. It would require an extremely bad storm and virtually impassable conditions for us to declare one of these," Clermont County Sheriff A. J. "Tim" Rodenberg Jr. said. "There are sheriffs I've talked to in other parts of Ohio that won't declare any of (the three snow classifications)."

Rodenberg and sheriffs in Butler and Warren counties put "Level 3" declarations in effect for varying periods Feb. 16. All three counties encountered the same problems:

• Officials lacked a reliable way to instantly inform people what Level 3 meant and how long it remained in effect.

• Callers flooded dispatch centers asking for clarification.

• Officers were too busy with other duties to bust scofflaws.

Meanwhile, Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis didn't declare a Level 2 "snow advisory" or even a Level 1 "snow alert." "You hope people use some common sense - that if the roads are bad, they won't drive," spokesman Steve Barnett said.

Authorities in Butler, Clermont and Warren counties said if they ever do impose a Level 3 again, they will need a better way to convey their message, possibly via recorded telephone line and/or notifications on Internet sites.

Using TV and radio to communicate with the public is helpful, though there is often a "lag time" until the news reaches viewers or listeners, Rodenberg said.

Steve Rath, a pastor at Faith Community United Methodist Church in West Chester Township, said he was at the church before 8 a.m. Sunday and didn't know that Butler County Sheriff Harold Don Gabbard declared the snow emergency at 8:50 a.m.

Rath learned of it only after some parishioners arrived and made a confession of sorts: "I came to church, and I wasn't supposed to be on the roads."

Despite the difficulties, sheriffs in more than 30 of Ohio's 88 counties declared Level 3 emergencies at some point that weekend, said Robert Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association. Although the three-tiered classification system has been in effect for years, there is still a good deal of misunderstanding about its use. "It's not used often enough for people to be that familiar with it," Cornwell said.

Rodenberg said there is conflicting wording, too. While people are being told not to drive unless absolutely necessary, they are also being told to contact their employers to see whether they should report for work.

Rodenberg, whose ban remained in effect for about 12 hours starting at 9 a.m. that Sunday, said he would have been far less likely to enact a Level 3 on a weekday because of the negative effect on businesses.

But Linda Schrock, manager of Sara Jane's in Monroe, said she kept the restaurant closed Saturday through Monday, regardless of what level had been declared, because of the risks.

"I didn't even want the employees to risk coming out, especially since customers probably weren't going to show up anyhow," she said.

Enforcing a Level 3 travel ban is impractical - and may be unsafe - because "there's no suitable place to pull people over," Cornwell said.

But, he pointed out, that's not the goal of a Level 3. The goal is to clear the way for safety forces and plows.

Before declaring an alert sheriffs typically rely on recommendations from county engineer, the Ohio Department of Transportation and people such as Frank Young, director of emergency services in Warren County.

Young said too many people appeared to be defying Sheriff Tom Ariss' ban on nonemergency travel, which remained in effect in Warren County from just before 7 a.m. until about 1:40 p.m. that Sunday.

Ironically, Young was forced to ask additional staff to risk traveling to the dispatch center so they could handle hundreds of calls from people clogging emergency lines with questions about road conditions.

Sheila McLaughlin contributed.


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