Disaster proclamations help in snowstorms

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Declaring snow emergency allows crews to keep plowing

Warren Bluhm, wbluhm@newmedia-wi.com

An Oconto County crew removes piles of snow along Erie Avenue in Oconto on Thursday. This has been an unusually snowy month, with three snow emergencies declared since Jan. 28. (Times Herald photo by Warren Bluhm)

The use of disaster proclamations has helped Oconto County crews stay ahead of severe winter weather.

Officials told the County Board on Thursday that federal regulations regarding rest breaks for truck drivers have changed the way counties may deal with routine snowstorms.

Highway Commissioner Pat Scanlan said a disaster proclamation gives the county some flexibility.

“In the past, we’d just go out and attack the snow and stay out as long as we had to. Shut it down for two, three hours, (then) bring ’em back in,” Scanlan said. “We can no longer do that. Federal motor carriers’ guidelines dictate that a 16-hour shift, a maximum of 14 hours behind the wheel, has to be followed up with eight consecutive hours off duty. If we have a proclamation for a snow emergency, those restrictions are lifted and we’re able to do business as we see fit.”

Last April, when forecasters predicted (accurately) that as much as 30 inches of snow would fall over 48 hours, Oconto County declared a snow emergency as the first flakes began flying.

It worked so well that the county made similar disaster proclamations for snow and/or ice storms Jan. 28-29, Feb. 4-7 and Feb. 11-13.

“You can’t just do a proclamation for the whole winter,” Emergency Management Coordinator Tim Magnin said. “That’d be handy, but it’d be abusing the system.”

The time frame has to be reasonable: When a major storm is coming, county officials try to estimate how long the storm will last, plus how long it will take to clear the roads after it passes, Magnin said.

“It can’t be used to circumvent the law,” Scanlan said. “It’s not safe; we all know that. You go out that amount of hours, it’s dicey.”

In the record-breaking mid-April snowstorm, several plow operators worked 23-24 hours straight, but that was a worst-case scenario, he said.

The disaster proclamations are signed by County Board Chairman Paul Bednarik and approved retroactively by the full board.

Scanlan said the officials are making their best decisions within the motor carrier guidelines.

“It’s not possible to stay out there for 18 to 20 hours. Our (insurance) safety adviser had mentioned, ‘Well, you can do it. But the first accident that happens, the investigation starts. They’ll go right to the logbook. When did that man start? How many hours is that behind the wheel?’” Scanlan said. “From a liability standpoint, we need to protect not only the employee but the county. You’ll probably be seeing more of these, but only when they’re warranted.”