It’s five o’clock in the morning, snow has been falling for a few hours in Vancouver and slowly accumulating on the roads across the city.
The question for a group of staff on a conference call is what to do about it. Building Operations crews are already brining, salting and plowing roads and pathways on the Vancouver campus but the staff on the call know students will wake up to snow and ask – are my classes or exams cancelled?
Academics and operations are sometimes curtailed during weather events, but with about 12,000 students living in residence and critical research and infrastructure requiring staff 24/7, the campus does not close.
On the call are representatives from Building Operations, the Office of the Provost and Vice-President Academic, Human Resources, Safety and Risk Services, Campus and Community Planning and Media Relations.
“The decision to cancel classes is never easy,” says Pam Ratner, vice-provost and associate vice-president, Enrolment and Academic Facilities.
“Our first priority is student, faculty, and staff safety – this is by far the most important consideration for us. We also discuss current road conditions to campus, municipal road-clearing operations, weather forecasts, our facilities staff’s ability to clear the snow on campus and the transit situation. We are mindful that cancelling classes or exams can create significant disruption for many students, staff and faculty. Ultimately, any decision is made following input from a variety of staff from across the university who can provide specific insight about each of these factors. During significant weather events this team convenes frequently to discuss the evolving situation.”
By 5:15 the group has made the call – road conditions will improve as the day warms up and snow turns to rain, buses are making it to and from campus and it’s expected the commute will be safe for drivers. Normal operations at UBC will proceed.
Now a small group is tasked with telling about 55,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff that it’s business as usual on the Vancouver campus. That message has to go out before 6 a.m.
First, the information advising the community of conditions and campus operations status is posted to ubc.ca, then it’s fanned out through UBC’s various social media feeds. That message also goes to media who are leading the morning news with the snow story. The goal for UBC on these mornings (and sometimes afternoons and evenings) is to reach as many people in the UBC community as possible through as many channels as possible.
As temperatures began to drop and winter weather loomed closer, Building Operations crews were busy prepping for what they knew was to come.
In fact, staff have been planning for months.
Their goal on all snow days, is to clear roads, sidewalks and pathways so the university can keep running – to keep students, faculty, staff and visitors safe.
On the Vancouver campus, the Building Operations group deploys about 70 people (more if conditions are especially bad) to clear the campus as quickly as possible.
They work with a fleet of specially equipped mowers with plows, ATVs with plows and salt spreaders, ATVS with brine spreaders, two dump trucks with plows and spreaders (with another in reserve if required), a pickup with a plow and salt spreader and a flatbed truck with a brine spreader as well as two bobcats and two backhoes, if required.
UBC has 60 tons of salt, 30 tons of sand and another 30 tons of a salt/sand combination stored and crews proactively brine to help prevent ice buildup.
The Building Operations team gets campus-specific weather updates twice a day – a service in place since the infamous winter of 2016-17, which still looms large in the minds of those in charge.
“We learn a lot from each winter. We review our priority routes and timelines for equipment preparation, and this year, we’re working with a group of students to review our salt use,” says Calvin Cheung, Municipal Manager in charge of streets and operations support. “We work carefully to ensure key roads, bus loops, pathways, and sidewalks are cleared with a focus on accessibility. One of the challenges with snow and ice removal is our climate, and how close it tends to hover around zero degrees Celsius. When there are sustained periods of snow we must have around the clock operations.”
While all of the snow and ice removal used to be managed by the Building Operations Streets and Operations Support group, it is now a coordinated approach across the Municipal Services division. The Streets and Operations Support group takes on all roads and the clearing of building pathways and accessibility routes on the south side of campus, while the Soft Landscape Crew takes the sidewalks and the pathways on the north side of campus.
As intense and stressful as it is, there’s something about everyone pulling together that brings some excitement to the team. “At the end of the day, our whole team really comes together and we feel like we’re making a difference.’ ‘In a way, I think we all kind of look forward to it” Cheung says.