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Transcript of JoCo on the Go podcast 1/6/20

Theresa Freed: [00:00] On this week's episode, hear from Johnson County Public Works and Emergency Operations Center staff. They'll tell you how the County coordinates winter weather prep and response. They'll discuss everything from snow removal to what to do if the electricity goes out. You'll also hear from a meteorologist who will let you know how much snow and ice we can expect for 2020.

Announcer: [00:20] Whether you live in or just love Johnson County, Kansas, JoCo on the Go has everything Johnson County. Here's what's happening and what's coming up in the community you call home.

Theresa Freed: [00:34] Thanks for joining us for JoCo on the Go. I'm your host, Theresa Freed, Johnson County resident and employee of Johnson County government. Winter weather has arrived. We've already had one significant winter storm of the season but likely more are on the way. So how does the County monitor ice and snow and how does our public works department get ahead of the storm and respond once weather starts to get bad on the roads? Today we're talking to Johnson County experts from our Emergency Operation Center and Public Works to answer some of those questions. We also have with us a meteorologist with the National Weather Service to start the conversation. Joining us by phone is Ray Christensen with the National Weather Service out of Kansas City. Thanks for speaking with us.

Ray Christensen: [01:14] Yes, thank you ma'am. I appreciate the opportunity.

Theresa Freed: [01:17] Alright, well we had our first bit of winter weather around mid-December. Can you talk a little bit about how that storm developed?

Ray Christensen: [01:24] Yeah. So basically it was probably about four to five days out. We started seeing on our computer models a potential for a winter storm come in, you know, and they came in on a Sunday. So we started to let our partners know that hey, you know, it looks like there's some snow coming. But we weren't quite sure, you know, how much it was going to be. So, but as it evolved, as we got to, within probably about two days, we started putting out snow amounts. And with this, with this event, they initially were thinking maybe two to four inches. But then as we got a little bit closer to the event it looked like it was going to be a little more significant. And so we bumped up the values the day before. And what ended up happening is we had two separate little low pressure systems go come through. And as you remember, probably most of the snow came on Sunday and then we had a second little round on Monday that which was, you know, added another inch or so to the, to the totals. But that's kinda how it evolved there. So.

Theresa Freed: [02:28] Alright. Is it pretty typical that we would have snow that early or is that out of the ordinary?

Ray Christensen: [02:34] No, this is pretty typical for December. Yeah. In fact, if you remember, we had a couple smaller events back in actually in October. Now when we get them in October, that's a little more rare cause they don't typically come that early, but you know, they can occur back even as early as October. So, but yeah, for December, that's really, that's about average for us, so.

Theresa Freed: [02:55] Okay. And I know that there's a great deal of coordination with the National Weather Service and local governments, including Johnson County. Can you talk a little bit about how you help us prepare?

Ray Christensen: [03:07] You know, we will you know, talk to our partners. We, we send out what's called a situation report every day. It actually goes out twice a day. We update it and then in the morning and in the afternoon. But this just kind of gives, this goes out to the emergency managers and to some of the school officials and, and, and other people. And as we get a significant event, you know, not only will we send out these situation reports, which are actually on our website, but we'll send out emails if it's a more significant event, which this one was, we'll send out an email, kind of alerting our partners, you know, hey, this is what we're thinking. So,

Theresa Freed: [03:45] And how much advance warning do we typically get with a winter storm? I know, people watch the news and they watch weather forecasting and see seven day projections and things like that.

Ray Christensen: [03:56] Sometimes we can see it a week out. But you know, even at that, it's really hard to predict. But usually within the three to five day range we'll have enough confidence to at least start letting people know, Hey, it looks like there's a storm coming. But we really don't know the details of how much, you know, that kind of stuff. It's, so I would say within probably the 36- to 24-hour range is when we can really start nailing down totals and you know, messaging that to our partners and to the public, you know, of, you know, this is what we're thinking for no totals and the impacts. So really beyond the, beyond maybe say two days before the event, it's really hard to really get you know, details and give them a lot of warning. So, but yeah, I mean when we actually do issue the warnings, that's usually going to be within, you know, probably within 24 hours.

Theresa Freed: [04:49] Okay. And I know you mentioned a little bit about last year we had a pretty active winter season with a lot of snow. Can you talk about what we're expecting for this year?

Ray Christensen: [04:58] Well, we look at it and we kind of go with what the a, what we call the climate prediction center cause they're the experts on the long-term forecast. But for this year you know, they look at patterns like you probably heard of the El Nino and the La Nina patterns. Well those really aren't in effect this year. Those patterns haven't materialized for this winter anyways. So where, what we're in what they call kind of a neutral pattern and the, and what that does is that just kinda affects the, the jet stream and where the storms track typically. There are other I guess meteorological patterns that we look at, but usually beyond a couple of weeks, those, you know, beyond that, it's really tough to forecast those. For example, we'll look at the Arctic oscillation, which is up in the Arctic and you know, up in that area. And that'll kind of tell us within a couple of weeks if you know, we're going to see some cold air and maybe, you know, possible snow outbreaks. And those kinds of things. But, but basically what, to answer your question really what they're predicting is kind of a normal season. And so what I can tell you so far, for at least the Kansas city area, we've had about 5.6 measured up at the airport. That's one of our climate sites. And that's pretty close to the normal. It's about a half inch below, you know, normal for basically through the end of December through today. So we're really close to normal, just slightly below, but there are forecasts and kind of a normal and our normal through say March where, and then the snow kind of starts going away. We're looking at maybe 12 to 13 inches, you know, that's a normal year. So we anticipate we could get somewhere in that range. Kind of a, just a normal, a winter. I don't think it's going to be quite as bad as last year. At least that's what the climate experts are telling us. Temperature wise, it's they're, they're kinda trending more towards a normal but, but maybe slightly above normal. And that's kind of what we've been seeing lately. We've had a lot of warm days mixed in with some colder days, like recently, but so, but I think it's gonna trend a little bit above normal. So.

Theresa Freed: [07:16] That's great information. And where can our listeners get the latest information or the best information about weather forecasts? Obviously local news is a great resource. Any other thoughts on that?

Ray Christensen: [07:29] Yeah, there, there are a lot of great resources. Obviously you've got the local TV news. Some of the radio's news is probably good. And obviously you have the National Weather Service and you know, if they come to us for their weather we have a website that they can go to and, and get a plethora of information and we also have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, so, and we keep that updated daily so they can kind of look at, you know, we post generally what's happening within the next day or next couple of days. So those are just a few resources.

Theresa Freed: [08:06] All right, that sounds good. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. Next we're going to speak with Dan Robeson. He's the Johnson County Emergency Management deputy director. Thank you for being here.

Dan Robeson: [08:16] Thanks for having me.

Theresa Freed: [08:18] Alright, well winter just started, but we've already seen some snowfall. Can you talk about how the County responded to the storm and that we saw back there in mid-December?

Dan Robeson: [08:26] Sure. Yeah. We saw our first winter storm of the season on a Sunday, December 15th. And I think a lot of people will remember that's the snowy Chiefs game that we had on that Sunday. Basically anytime we have a significant winter weather event like that many public safety entities, including our own organization implement their plans. And one of the things that we did on that event immediately was connect with a lot of our partners to set up a few coordination conference calls to make sure everybody had a good understanding of what the impact was going to be

Theresa Freed: [09:03] And how, how do we first find out that a winter storm is coming? I know you work closely with the National Weather Service. Is that typically how it happens?

Dan Robeson: [09:10] That's right. We're very close partners with the National Weather Service and our office is monitoring every day content that comes through them. And we see as things escalate, as storms come through, we're have a pretty good sense based on their ongoing communication about what the significant impacts might be. And so as we see things ramp up, we start increasing our communication and making preparations internally.

Theresa Freed: [09:38] Okay. And I know you mentioned some conference calls. How important is it to have that regional coordination in terms of you know, when snowplows go out and resources are lodged and all that good stuff?

Dan Robeson: [09:48] Sure. Well, there's a lot going on. Anytime a big weather event like this occurs and everybody has their own role and plan. But one of the things that we like to focus on is making sure that we have a good understanding of what the anticipated impact is and what people are experiencing through the event and what potential needs might be out there in the future. So we spent a lot of time making sure that we have a good understanding that everything's being implemented at the right level. And in place and addressing and communicating issues that come up.

Theresa Freed: [10:20] Okay. And last year, I know we had quite a bit of snow. I was living in Topeka at the time and commuting back and forth to work. So I definitely know it was it was difficult on the roadways and things like that. So it sounds like we are anticipating another potentially fairly active winter, at least normal for this time of year. So how is emergency operations coordinating with our departments and regional partners just to stay on top of the snow and ice?

Dan Robeson: [10:44] Sure. Well, as you mentioned, we can always expect every year two to four significant winter weather events. And so we're always talking about it. And one of the ways that we continue our coordination is we have monthly workshop meetings with our various partners and also regional meetings that we have monthly with our different emergency management partners throughout the KC Metro region. And we also go through a series of exercises that focus on winter weather and their impacts from time to time.

Theresa Freed: [11:19] And can you talk a little bit about you know, I don't know if there's some way to differentiate, but just kind of a standard response versus a disaster situation or an emergency situation when it comes to winter weather?

Dan Robeson: [11:30] Sure. Well, we're always in a mode of ensuring that we're monitoring what's going on and, and so that if something comes up, we're likely to get that information and act on it. But as things progress we have different triggers that activate different actions of ours and times to coordinate with different entities. And so we're always just, we're looking for some of those triggers. We have a lot of data that help us better understand what the probability of impacts will be based on different products that are out there. And so that's what we stay focused on and make sure that others are aware of as well.

Theresa Freed: [12:09] Okay. And so does the amount of snow factor into that or is it, is it something else?

Dan Robeson: [12:16] One of the key triggers that we look at are the National Weather Service products that get issued. So many times there's a winter storm watch that will tell us that there's potentially going to be a winter weather event, a winter storm warnings, blizzard warnings, ice storm warnings. Those are all events that where we have triggers based off of. And so we're tuned into the forecasted amount of snow or ice or in all these different impacts as well. But the biggest indicator to us we've found is National Weather Service issuance of those products, advisories and warnings.

Theresa Freed: [12:55] Okay. That makes sense. And I know you're very involved in advising County leaders when there's a storm expected and that plays into their decision whether to keep our offices open. And I know almost always the offices are open and in the very least, our critical services are always provided. So can you talk about sort of the decision making that goes into, or the factors that go into that decision?

Dan Robeson: [13:16] Well, sure. You know, Johnson County provides critical services to people throughout the County every hour of every day. And there are a lot of people that work very hard to ensure that that can be continued uninterrupted all the time but sometimes due to safety or just makes sense for us to modify a schedule or alter things so that we can make sure that people are safe while the services continue to be provided. And part of that is making that decision of do schedules need to be modified. Business offices need to be closed. And there are, there's a lot of information that goes into that decision making. So we facilitate a conference call with internal partners, County management public safety groups along the list of people that come together and have a series of conference calls to ensure that we all have the right information and determine what potential impacts could there be of us staying open or not staying open. And that's well coordinated with the courts and District Attorney's office, Sheriff's office, MED-ACT, facilities, Human Resources. A lot of people come into that and are involved with that discussion. We facilitate those meetings to help make sure that the best information is available so that the decision can be made about how we might change our schedule. But like you mentioned the counties ready state is usually just to stay open. But we want to make sure that for safety reasons, if things need to be changed that we do that in a timely manner.

Theresa Freed: [14:55] Okay. And this is probably a good opportunity to talk about Notify JoCo that is how we notify people that there may be a change in, in services or hours of services and things like that and also about upcoming storms that they should be prepared for. So can you talk a little bit about that?

Dan Robeson: [15:11] Certainly. So Notify JoCo is the county's mass notification system that does offer the option to opt in for weather alerts including winter weather. So this is a free service available to anybody that lives, works or plays in Johnson County. You can go to NotifyJoco.org And sign up there, set up an account. And that's one of the things that we ask everybody to do in terms of preparing for winter weather events or any type of emergency is make sure that you have a way to receive emergency notifications. And in Johnson County signing up for Notify JoCo is the best way to do that.

Theresa Freed: [15:49] Okay. Sounds good. And also last question. I know, you know, when there's a lot of snow, people can typically stay inside and stay put until the roads are clear. But sometimes, especially when there's an ice storm and limbs are down and things like that power gets knocked out and that presents some challenges for residents. And so do you have any advice for, for people, for families on how to be prepared for that sort of situation?

Dan Robeson: [16:14] Certainly I'd say. Yeah, preparing ahead of time is the best way to go. To make sure that you have, you have a good understanding of how to safely heat and light your home. If the power does go out, make sure that you have various ways to communicate with the people you need to and make sure you have ways to get the information that you'll need. I also recommend that people go to ready.gov or to our website to make sure that they have a good understanding of what are those actions that need to be taken specifically in a winter weather event. To ensure they have that information that they have good plans in place for their household.

Theresa Freed: [16:54] Alright, that's great information and we'll thank you for joining us today. Thank you. Shifting gears now we're talking about how winter weather impacts County roads we have with us Public Works Director Brian Pietig and Wes Root, also from Public Works. Thank you both for being here today. Alright, to start us off just tell us a little bit about what your roles are with the County.

Brian Pietig: [17:17] Well, I'm the County Engineer and our group is responsible for all the roads in the unincorporated area and there is sometimes confusion with that in that folks think Johnson County is responsible for all the roads in Johnson County and we are responsible for all the areas and roads that are not in the cities and it's hard to believe, but there's still 40% of the County that's unincorporated. We have about 440 miles of roads in the unincorporated rural area that we take care of.

Theresa Freed: [17:44] Okay. That's a huge job, I'm sure. All right. And Wes, what do you do?

Wes Root: [17:50] I'm the roads superintendent for the incorporated area and you know with being unincorporated we take care of the paved and gravel roads outside the city limits, and the cities take care of their roads and the state takes care of the state highways.

Theresa Freed: [18:03] Okay. All right. That's good information. Just talking about winter weather, how does the County plan for the winter season in terms of preparing for the weather as it relates to those those County roads?

Wes Root: [18:15] As we were talking about the counties, we coordinate with those counties and there's border roads that we share with them and we work back and forth as one mile we plow, one mile they plow to be most efficient in our plow routes and we make sure that our salt domes are refilled during the summertime whenever we can get the salt and would make sure that our equipment's set up and ready to go. Just basically preparing for the season ahead.

Theresa Freed: [18:38] Okay. Anything to add on that?

Brian Pietig: [18:41] Yeah, we do spend a lot of time training our folks too. They will, they have their specific routes that they're responsible for and we will take a day here before it gets to be winter and they will run those routes, make sure they're familiar with it.

Theresa Freed: [18:53] Okay. And it's a lot of coordination, right? And you're, you're working year-round. So even though we haven't had a ton of what winter weather so far, you guys have done a lot of work ahead of, of what could be expected. Right.

Brian Pietig: [19:06] The coordination really occurs before winter, during winter. You'd be surprised. There isn't a lot of back and forth because the routes are set and we've talked with the cities and the counties and everybody knows what they're responsible for.

Wes Root: [19:17] Much of the work we do year-round chip sealant on our paved roads to keep the water out. Crack sealant on our paved roads. That is an also preparation for the winter because if we keep the water out of the pavement, it doesn't freeze. It didn't create potholes.

Theresa Freed: [19:29] Okay. So what's the plan for snow removal and how do you guys decide which areas you get to first?

Wes Root: [19:35] Our arterial roads, our through roads are the ones that we connect to first. We'd go out and make sure that the major roads are open. Once our arterial roads are open, we work into our subdivisions. If the snow accumulation gets above three inches, then we work out into the gravel roads. We'll have a mode graters out maintaining the gravel roads and pushing the snow off. We have to be careful not to push the rock off and just get the snow off the gravel roads.

Theresa Freed: [20:03] Okay. And so how many, how many trucks are we talking about? And you know the logistics of actually getting out there and doing that work.

Wes Root: [20:12] We have 13 routes. Of those 13 routes. We have two bobtails, 10 tandems and a pickup truck that we go out and maintain these routes as far as treating plowing and getting the snow and ice off the road.

Theresa Freed: [20:27] As soon as the snow starts falling or is it like an hour into the snowfall or when, when do you actually get up and start working on that issue?

Wes Root: [20:35] It depends on the storm. If there is a storm coming in that's not going to have a lot of rain ahead of time, we will go out and pre-treat with salt brine to help keep the mud, the snow or ice that comes in from sticking to the roads. If it's just a snowstorm and not an ice storm, the pretreat brine will help the snow from sticking, but then we don't treat a lot of material while we're plowing because as we put it on, then we'll just push it right off the road would just keep plowing and getting the snow off the road. Then as we get into some areas, especially at night, the snow starts getting the roads start getting snow packed and then we wind up treating with the salt to help loosen up that material. It's not as effective at night due to the temperatures and the lack of traffic.

Theresa Freed: [21:26] Okay. And so when you have really heavy snowfall that that doesn't just dump all at once, but it's kind of continuous, does that mean the multiple trips or having to be made or do you guys just wait till the storm is over and then start getting some of that

Wes Root: [21:40] Those roads we're referring to. We have two crews working 12 hours a day from 6:30 AM to 6:30 PM and we keep around the clock, just keep running there routes until they're open. And then we move into the local roads and then to the gravel roads. So we don't stop at any time. The guys just keep running continuously until the roads are cleared up.

Theresa Freed: [22:03] And I'm sure that makes for very long days for, for workers. How do you kind of coordinate all those schedules and, and make sure they're getting some relief as they, they come in and out?

Brian Pietig: [22:14] Well, we work 12 hour shifts, so we have a day crew and then the night crew we do like everyone else watch the weather forecast and when we see a storm coming in, we send our night crews home so they can try and get some rest before they get in. But it's, it's a difficult situation for them, especially when you have events that occur a week after week where they're constantly shifting from day to a night.

Theresa Freed: [22:35] Fatigue is one consideration obviously for their safety, but then also just their general safety when they're operating equipment out on heavy snow, packed roads and off also kind of competing with the other drivers on the roadway. So what are some of those concerns?

Brian Pietig: [22:50] Yeah, the unincorporated area is unique. These, the roads out there are literally the roads that the settlers opened up as dirt roads and through the decades you put gravel on the asphalt on them. So there are no curb and gutter. There's no shoulders. There's no streetlights on the edges, there's no traffic lights and it's, it's difficult. Oftentimes our drivers have to get out and scrape at the road to find out where it's at. It's not as simple as it is in the city. So there are significant issues in the unincorporated area our folks deal with. And you mentioned some of the practicing or training that the, the crews go through. So what does that look like? That's running your routes and taking a look, looking for those markers that will help you identify where the road is, whether that's a, an old tree where a house is, utility poles, things like that to get familiar with it so you know where you are.

Theresa Freed: [23:40] Okay. And as far as being on the road with other drivers, what are the, the things that that driver should know about? Like staying back a certain distance or things like that?

Brian Pietig: [23:51] Yeah. Our colleagues at KDOT have a great saying, which is Don't Crowd the Plow, stay well back from them. They will throw up snow. It makes it difficult for you to see, they're dropping material, salt on the road that can damage your car. So stay well back. I would recommend 300 feet. A football field.

Theresa Freed: [24:10] Yeah, that's, that's a good amount of distance. But it's for everybody's safety Im sure. Are there things that the homeowners can do to help crews get to their, their road, the driveway area. Sort of like, what's the, the advice that you'd give them on keeping their, their driveway clear or how do they clear their driveway so that snow doesn't pile up in a certain area that makes it difficult?

Brian Pietig: [24:32] I know it's frustrating for folks when the snowplows go by. You've shoveled out your driveway and they take all this snow and just rake it right along the edge of the roadway and fills your driveway back in. The logistics of it, if we were to stop and clean out everyone's driveway, it would probably take four or five times longer to go through a snow event. So the responsibility is generally on the homeowner. If you take your snow and you put it on the downstream side of your driveway and don't put it where the plow was going at first, grab it. So don't pile it up on where the, where our truck is approaching, put it on the other side of your driveway and that will reduce some of the snow that gets thrown back in your driveway. But we're sorry that we have to do that. But that's for efficiency to keep the roads open.

Theresa Freed: [25:14] Right. And that's the number one priority, I guess when you're getting a snow snow off the roads,

Wes Root: [25:24] Limiting the number of cars parked on the road and in the cul de sacs helps us immensely to, to be able to efficiently go through, clean the road and go on to the next road has happened to work around a parked car.

Theresa Freed: [25:37] Oh, that makes sense. So you know, when the snow starts falling, then maybe you get those cars up in the driveway probably.

Wes Root: [25:45] Yes and then that's the less you have to plow.

Theresa Freed: [25:46] That's true. That's true too. Okay. Good advice there. So back to talking about how you get ready ahead of a storm. Pre-Treating the roads is it an important priority to, so what's the process in doing that? Which areas are you pre-treating what are you treating with?

Wes Root: [26:02] We use a salt brine solution and we'll treat all the hills and curves and major intersections and most of the arterial roads. You'll see a chalky white lines down the road where the salt is dry. We use the brine solution because as the brine goes down, it'll the water evaporate and leave the salt behind it. It's 100% efficient at keeping the snow or ice from sticking to the road. And the past we'd had used a granular material and the issue. there is, when you're putting it down it bounces around, traffic goes by, bounces it around. And so, you know, probably more than 50% of that grain material winds up bouncing off the road into the shoulders and it's not on the to do the work. So we're able to get better work out of the salt brine and keeping the material or keeping the snow. And ice from sticking to the road.

Theresa Freed: [26:54] And if you could tell me how ice and snow storms are handled differently.

Brian Pietig: [26:57] Snowstorms are pretty straightforward. We put a plow down, we push the snow off ice storms depending on the event. There are different animal what's, and what's interesting about ice storms is just putting salt on there, doesn't immediately start to take care of it. That salt needs to be ground up by traffic and then sunlight helps activate it into a briny solution to work away at that so that the ice. So it takes a little time for that to work. Just treating it doesn't necessarily get rid of the ice immediately.

Theresa Freed: [27:25] Okay. So I understand there are still gravel roads in the County, obviously, and those probably differ in how they're treated with pavement. So can you talk about that?

Brian Pietig: [27:34] It's hard to believe that there's still about 140 miles of gravel roads in the County. And you're right, they are a unique animal. We cannot put a plow blade on them. It would scrape off the top rock material. We also cannot put salt on them to treat the, the ice in that the salt will work down and it will make it just a mushy mess. You wouldn't even be able to get a vehicle through. So when there's about three inches of snow, we can take a motor grader out and lift the blade just off the surface and get off the high amounts of snow. The roads will eventually become snow packed. And what's difficult in Kansas is we experience a lot of freeze thaw cycles. So those gravel roads with the snowpack end up becoming almost like ice rinks and they're, they're very difficult during the winter and a lot of people don't realize that.

Theresa Freed: [28:19] Okay. So any other specific concerns residents have? How do they get in touch with you guys in terms of if, if you know, they feel like there hasn't been enough response to removing the snow, can they reach out to you?

Wes Root: [28:35] For a general concern or comment? They can contact us through our online service request, which is https://jocogov.org/dept/public-works/request-service. Fill out the information that goes right to our service requests and we can track that, assign it to a crew, get out and get it taken care of. If what is happening is an emergency contact 911 the dispatcher can get ahold of us directly and we can have a snowplow truck in the area. We have at times had to run a snowplow truck out in front of an ambulance for an emergency service to get somebody the help they needed.

Theresa Freed: [29:18] Any other advice for our listeners when it comes to winter weather,

Brian Pietig: [29:21] We would suggest you stay off the roads until the snow event is done. We've had a chance to clear everything out, but recognize that people need, need to get out and go about their business. Give the plows space, they're out there working and it's a very difficult situation. They can't see, just like you can't see. So stay back and give them plenty of space. Don't Crowd the Plow

Theresa Freed: [29:42] All right, great advice. All right, well thank you both for being here today. And thanks for listening.

Announcer: [29:48] You just heard JoCo on the Go. Join us next time for more everything Johnson County. Have a topic you want to discuss? We want to hear from you. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter at JoCoGov. For more on this podcast, visit jocogov.org/podcast. Thanks for listening.