Lessons from a snowstorm

Posted by janelle on January 22, 2012 in Leadership, Tips |

Last week brought a series of lessons in emergency preparedness for many across Washington as our state was walloped with as much as24 inches of snow in some areas followed by a debilitating ice storm that resulted in massive power outages impacting more than 325,000 households.

Times like these shine a huge spotlight on your emergency preparedness plan.

In past snowstorms, my role at the Attorney General’s Office consisted of rolling over in bed around 6 a.m., dialing the inclement weather line, texting my team to find out whether people could make it in due to the weather, checking the weather outside to see if there was any chance I could drive in it then eventually padding downstairs to make some coffee, log on and work from home since it’s next to impossible to get out of our cul de sac and up the hill to get to work.

This year, in my new role as Deputy Chief of Staff, I joined the ranks of the inclement weather team, responsible for deciding how the Attorney General’s Office would respond to the weather.

While Monday was a holiday, many of us were working regardless. The Legislature takes no holidays when it is in session– so neither do those of us whose work involves the Legislature. With the snow already several inchesĀ  deep, we held a short conference call Monday afternoon then decided to check in at 5:30 am the following morning to determine whether or not to allow late arrival. At that point, I sent a short message to staff, reminding them of the inclement weather policy, including the number to call the next morning.

My back deck at 6 a.m. on January 18-- after one round of snow shovelling and six more hours of snow.

At 5:15 a.m. Tuesday, I trudged downstairs, fired up the space heater, turned on the computer, logged on to our AGO e-mail system and loaded multiple Web sites:

With offices in 13 cities across the state, our inclement weather team consists of representatives from Seattle, Tacoma, Tumwater, Olympia, Spokane and our regional services division chief who is responsible for reporting out for the rest of the state.

Some members reported school closures, others shared information from the various weather and news reports, others called the courts or checked their Web sites, others shared information from their staff– and our Chief Deputy even went out and drove around his neighborhood to gauge how difficult the driving conditions were. In anticipation of the week ahead, I signed up for KING 5’s school closure alerts and KIRO 7’s severe weather and personalized daily weather emails.

Throughout the week, we faced a variety of challenges, worse-than-expected weather, widespread power outages and constantly changing information. Despite it all, I feel like the office handled this latest disaster fairly well. But it never hurts to do a little reflection.

What we did well:

  • Publicized the inclement weather policy ahead of time and advertised the phone number.
  • Identified and notified essential personnel ahead of time.
  • Established a conference line and pass code that doesn’t change to use for inclement weather team calls.
  • Updated the inclement weather line as close to 6 a.m. as possible–and updated again as needed.
  • Followed-up with an e-mail.
  • Allowed for flexibility.
  • Reminded people to check in with their supervisors.

What I’d personally do differently in the future:

  • Assign members of the inclement weather team to check specific sites for cancellations to prevent all of us from looking up the same things and to streamline the decision-making process.
  • Provide more information to staff earlier as to the decision-making process so they know what goes into our decisions.
  • Update my hard-copy phone list to include members of the inclement weather team, their personal and home cell numbers as well as personal e-mail addresses in case we lose access to the AGO servers or suffer a power outage.
  • Develop more redundancy when it comes to who can update the weather line in case the first two people assigned to update the line lose phone access or power.
  • Make sure I have multiple cell phone chargers so I have access to my Blackberry if my power goes out!

While things certainly were not perfect, all in all, we had an opportunity to rise to the occasion– and an opportunity to find areas to improve. Let’s hope we don’t have to do it again any time soon!

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