Weather decisions: A Q&A with the UO's emergency management chief

Students were traveling well-worn paths by Monday afternoon (photo by Joe Mosley)

The University of Oregon faces unique challenges when inclement weather hits. Because it is a residential campus, the UO can never officially close — even when record-low temperatures hit the region, as they did this weekend.

University officials conferred several times over the weekend, assessing campus and community conditions before deciding to delay the start of campus Monday morning and reschedule some final exams.

We talked with Andre Le Duc, the UO’s executive director for Enterprise Risk Services, about how decisions on campus operations are made during extreme weather conditions. Le Duc serves as the UO’s incident commander during emergencies and disasters.

Why is the University of Oregon open during this deep freeze?

As a residential and research campus with over 4,000 students living on campus, we can never truly close. We need to maintain essential services and functions to support the campus residents and research facilities. Our primary objective is to look at the safety and well-being of students, faculty and staff.

So it’s not whether we close — it’s whether we cancel classes or suspend activities, and operate those essential functions needed to keep campus going during the emergency. Essential services include food services, heat, steam, water — the basic essentials we need to provide to keep campus operational.

How do UO administrators make the decision to stay open when the weather is so nasty?  

We have a comprehensive protocol for assessing inclement weather. Ideally, this starts as soon as we know an adverse event is coming. We start by reaching out to community partners. We host a collaborative website where we can communicate and exchange information with Eugene and Springfield public works, Oregon Department of Transportation, Lane Transit District, the school districts, Lane Community College, and the hospitals. Hospitals are similar to us — they can never really close.

We don’t make these decisions in a vacuum. We reach out to community partners to see how they may be changing their operations. We try to address two key variables: First, what are conditions on campus proper; can we keep the campus snow routes open and can students, faculty, and staff safely get to and from buildings?

If conditions look good on campus, the second variable is, what does the community look like? For example, this week Eugene Public Works is dealing with a lot of issues and is focused on the priority roads. The arterial roads have seen some improvements during the day but continue to refreeze at night. A big gauge has been whether LTD buses are running and the number of routes operating, particularly those coming to campus. That’s an indication of whether people can get to and from campus. You may not be able to drive your car, but you may be able to take the bus. 

Overall we try to build a full picture, from Eugene public works telling us the status of primary and secondary roads, what LTD is doing, and whether LTD is operational on snow routes. If campus looks clear, we tend to lean more toward maintaining operations, even if it is limited or delayed some.

Ultimately, people have to make their own decisions about whether to travel in these conditions, correct?

We fully expect everyone to make the best judgment calls about their own situations. Weather in the Eugene area can be difficult to forecast due to the differences in terrain: it could be raining on campus and snowing in the south hills. It is impossible for the university to make a decision that is appropriate for each person. 

It is understood that not everyone may be able to travel to campus in this type of weather. We do expect that students, faculty and staff will use their best judgment in assessing the risk of coming to campus and returning home, based on individual circumstances

How does the fact this freeze hit at the start of final exams complicate matters?

In some respects it’s easier and in others its much harder. The easier part is, we have people coming at targeted times for exams and then leaving campus. The harder part is the logistics of finding new times for those exams that had to be rescheduled. Lots of people have plans to leave campus for winter break. The goal is, when we need to move exams, we move them to where they can be made up within the week. That is a lot of logistics within the University Registrar’s Office.

How are these operational decisions made?

We have an incident management system and incident management team, with members from all areas of campus, this team is called together to share information and weigh the pros and cons of the various options. The team then makes recommendations to senior leadership. There are a lot of people behind the scenes meeting over the phone, working online, and out and about assessing campus and community conditions to provide the most relevant and complete information in order to have the most thoughtful recommendations to University leadership on how to proceed.

- by Tim Christie, UO Office of Digital and Social Communications