Momentum Award: Emergency Staff

One hundred eight and three-fifths inches of snow. An average temperature of 18.8 degrees throughout the month of February. Approximately $2 billion in regional economic costs due to snow and cold. Four full days of cancelled class—and one delayed start—at Boston College.

And yet, emergency staff at the University held out through the obscenely snowy night, tenacious, unsung heroes of the worst Boston winter on record.

To combat the inclement weather—and Chestnut Hill, Mass. certainly suffered no shortage—the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and its constituent Emergency Management Executive Team (EMET) assembled an indefatigable force: BC Dining Services, Facilities Management, BCPD, the Office of Residential Life, BC EMS, Transportation and Parking, the Office of Student Affairs, University Libraries, and the Office of News and Public Affairs. From Winter Storm Juno through the second coldest February on record in Boston, emergency staff withstood it all—and enabled the rest of the BC community to survive the harsh winter weather, too.

Comprised of around 20 members and chaired by Director of OEM John Tommaney, the EMET meets every other month to discuss upcoming, planned events such as football games and commencement, and develop emergency procedures for the unprecedented—such as this past, superlative-rife winter. “Our job is really looking at the big picture and how it all comes together, and then sequencing what the priority of the University is,” Tommaney said. “Our job is to make sure we give [the Provost, University President, and Executive Vice President] the best information available to make informed decisions on overall campus activity.”

Consulting with, briefing, and updating the Offices of the Provost and the Dean of Faculties, the Executive Vice President, and the University President on planned and emergency goings on, the EMET is an always-essential faction on campus, crucial to equipping top University decision-makers with pertinent information.

While the EMET cannot anticipate, but still prepares for crises like the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, for blizzards such as that which struck New England from Jan. 26-27—dumping a whopping 24.6 inches of malleable powder as the sixth largest storm in Boston history since 1935—the team readies itself several days in advance.

“We have very close relationships with the National Weather Service,” Tommaney said, “So we’re able to monitor winter storms … and share information between the [parties involved].” Although much work goes into safety preparation preceding an emergency, the EMET and its auxiliary groups pull out all the stops during the eye of the storm.

And for Facilities Management, this meant 225 employees and private contractors working around the clock with limited sleep to clear campus, keep roadways open for emergency vehicles, and maintain some semblance of order with the arrival of Juno, and similar labor forces to weather the smaller, but by no means inconsequential storms in her wake.

“After a slow start, this winter really picked up in terms of intensity and frequency of storms,” said Martin Dugal, associate vice president of Facilities Services, in an email. “I’m really proud of the way our staff, led by grounds and custodial, responded and made certain that the campus was as safe as possible. The winter was difficult on many fronts and wasn’t just about clearing snow, the continuous cold really strained many of our building systems as well.”

This also meant recurrently staying overnight on cots at the University.

“They did what I call yeoman’s work,” Tommaney said. “They put in very, very long hours for snow removal. You know, when most of us get a chance to sleep at night, they’re going around the clock, trying to keep the roads and the walkers and the buildings accessible and safe for people.”

Arthur Bailin / Heights Staff
Arthur Bailin / Heights Staff

Setting up camp in unoccupied zones of Maloney Hall, emergency Facilities staff slept on campus, unable to leave due to citywide travel bans amid the declared state of emergency and an increased need for emergency snow removal aid. The University provided a constant supply of food throughout the winter storms, allied with Dining Services—a contingent of whom also slept at BC on several occasions.

“The heroes and heroines during this record-breaking winter were clearly the hard-working staff in Facilities Management and Dining Services who, on many occasions, slept overnight on cots to keep the University operating and BC students fed,” said University Spokesperson Jack Dunn in an email.

For her first year as the director of Dining Services, Beth Emery certainly encountered her share of emergency planning and reorganization, overseeing the hectic, urgent improvisation of her staff and its resources during an academic year replete with winter wreckage. “That six-week period from the end of January to basically all of February was just a constant battle against Mother Nature,” Tommaney said. Yet, Emery, with emergency dining staff in tow, proved just as determined as the unrelenting winter, with a team of individuals sleeping in The Heights Room in Corcoran Commons, the Faculty Dining Room in McElroy, and the Faculty Lounge in Stuart on five separate nights preceding class cancellation or delay in order to feed the 7,000 mouths—and extra, emergency staff—pent up on campus. While the two nights of Winter Storm Juno combined had the most sleep overnight at 55 and 25, the subsequent three storms necessitated that 21, 45, and 31, respectively, stay in BC’s emergency housing accommodations.

Photo courtesy of Beth Emery
Photo courtesy of Beth Emery

“Our team at BC Dining takes enormous pride in feeding the students and the BC community,” Emery said via email. “This past winter was an excellent example of our team members’ dedication. Many slept at BC to ensure that we had enough staff to feed the community. Others traveled through difficult conditions or found alternative methods of transportation when the MBTA was unavailable. We have a fabulous team who take their role as essential personnel very seriously.”

But Facilities Management and BC Dining—while hugely impactful—were by no means alone in their prolonged plight: a myriad of emergency staff members from other divisions aided in maintaining the University’s day-to-day routine.

“[Facilities and BC Dining Services] were joined by BCPD, and staff from BC Libraries, Residential Life and Athletics who braved bad weather to serve the community,” Dunn added via email. “They and all members of the Emergency Management Team deserve our thanks for their efforts.”

Residence directors and assistants kept their respective residents well informed on University updates, issuing regular emails regarding procedural changes and adjustments to hourly schedules for dining halls and the Plex. BCPD and BC EMS increased support staff on the Newton, Upper, and Lower Campuses, remaining vigilant on emergency policy and conduct enforcement and thereby ensuring the safety of the student body throughout each of the winter storms.

When the February cold caused frozen pipes to burst in residential buildings—one such instance involving a fire sprinkler in Edmond’s—residential staff and facilities jumped into action to remedy the situation. “That was an example of where facilities staff, residential staff moved very quickly to clean it up and fix the problem,” Tommaney said.

Even when the University decided to remain open despite the MBTA shutdown, issuing a morning delay rather than cancelling classes outright, faculty and staff rose to the challenge, making the laborious trek to campus to enable classes to resume. In terms of the OEM and EMET’s performance this year, Tommaney alluded to this 10:30 a.m. start on Feb. 10 as one area upon which he and his team can improve in the future, perhaps extending the BC Shuttle service beyond its usual route to better transport faculty, students, and staff to campus in inclement weather.

“We can’t shut down the University completely because we have a caretaking responsibility, but at the same time we have a significant number of students that commute to campus and 3,500 employees off campus, and we have to balance their safety against the operations on campus,” he said.

On April 15, University President William P. Leahy, S.J. hosted a thank you event to express gratitude for all those whose hard work enabled BC to persevere through the bleak winter months.

Going into his seventh year, Tommaney is pleased with the progress OEM and EMET has made in terms of advocating for and augmenting a culture of preparedness at BC. “We’ve come a long way, you know, I’m very proud of the fact that the University puts a lot of emphasis on our ability to be prepared,” he said. “Everybody is a member of emergency management on campus, it’s not just the staff that work here. Students, faculty members, staff members all have a role to play. When we take basic preparedness messages to heart, we’re a much stronger institution.

For the BC community going forward, he urges everyone to “keep up the march.”

“One of the things that I love most about BC is the culture of our students,” he said. “We have a community of students that philosophically want to help and want to get involved … That’s a proud thing for the University, that we have such a caring community that is willing to jump in.”

Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Staff

About Corinne Duffy 36 Articles
Corinne Duffy was the Features Editor for The Heights in 2015.