University employees keep campus running during snowstorm

March 16, 2017 1:37 p.m.

When Winter Storm Stella hit Princeton on March 14, the University's essential services employees worked across campus to clear roads and parking lots, shovel sidewalks, feed students and staff, keep buildings powered and much more.

As a residential community with most students living on or near campus, Princeton University must ensure basic operations continue during severe weather. The heart of these efforts are essential services employees, whose jobs include keeping the campus safe and functioning during weather and other emergencies. Staff in a range of departments are designated as essential services employees, including, Public Safety, Environmental Health and Safety, Facilities, University Services, University Health Services and others.

"We have a University that really pulls together during emergencies," said Emergency Management Group Co-Chair Robin Izzo, director of environmental health and safety. "That is one thing you can count on. People are always going to ask: 'What can I do?'"

For the most recent storm — which brought snow, sleet and strong winds — more than 700 essential services employees worked on campus. Offices were closed for non-essential personnel and classes were canceled until noon to provide time to safely clear campus sidewalks and roads.

"We have policies about essential employees, what their jobs may include and when they may be asked to work," Izzo said.

Snow plowing on campus

Facilities staff cleared snow from 22 miles of campus roadways and 56 miles of walkways following Winter Storm Stella on March 14. More than 700 essential services employees from various departments worked on campus during the storm to clean roads, shovel sidewalks, feed students and staff, power buildings and much more. (Photo by Cindy Suter, Facilities)

The number of essential employees who work depends on the particular emergency and the needs of students, faculty and staff. This week's storm came during midterm exams when students had to access places like dining halls, libraries and Frist Campus Center.

In Facilities, Grounds and Building Maintenance staff cleared snow from 22 miles of roadways, 56 miles of walkways and all University parking lots. Building Services staff ensured residential facilities stayed clean and academic buildings were ready to open at noon, while staff in Engineering and Campus Energy kept buildings heated and powered.

Meanwhile, employees in University Services, University Health Services, the University Library and other departments supported students studying for midterms. For example, Campus Venue Services maintained the normal 24-hour schedule at Frist Campus Center for midterm week and Campus Dining operated normal hours in all of the residential dining halls.

"As students prepared for midterms, it was great to be in service of our students by continuing to provide them with freshly prepared food and beverage during the storm," Campus Dining Executive Director Smitha Haneef said. "I believe our role is at the heart of living and learning in a residential community like Princeton."

Haneef said Campus Dining also was able to support employees during the storm. The Frist Campus Center Food Gallery provided meals for essential services staff on campus, and also was available to local first responders working during the storm.

Emergency Management Group Co-Chair Paul Ominsky, executive director of public safety, said a lot of planning goes into severe weather events.

A day before the March 14 storm, the University's weather group (a subset of the emergency management group) made sure everyone was prepared and that departments notified their employees of roles and expectations. For some essential employees, that meant deciding to stay in campus shelters or at local hotels rather than travel to and from the University in the snow.

"The worst weather was during the morning commuting hours, so we had contingency plans for essential employees to stay on campus if they preferred not to travel back and forth. It is the employee's decision," Izzo said. "I myself have stayed in campus shelters during some emergencies. They are helpful to have."

When the storm finally arrived, the heaviest snow and winds came very early in the morning. The weather group held a conference call at 4 a.m. and continued to monitor the storm throughout the day. The group updated faculty, staff and students about campus conditions via the University's emergency notification system, SNOW line, social media channels and homepage.

Ominsky said it is the dedication of essential services staff that keeps the campus functioning during such days.

"We rely on the critical support of these employees to maintain the health and welfare of our campus community year round," Ominsky said.