By JOY BROWN
Hancock County Sheriff Michael Heldman’s decision to declare a Level 3 road emergency, the highest level, at 6:15 a.m. Monday prompted questions about such alerts, and what influences the decisions to declare them.
Here’s what the sheriff had to say Monday morning:
• Road conditions reported by deputies factor heavily into road level declarations, but the needs and reports of other government officials, school district administrators, and business owners do, too. Everyone from the Findlay-Hancock County Chamber of Commerce to the county engineer provides input.
• The timing of road level declarations depends on weather conditions inside the city and out in the county. Heldman said blowing and drifting was more severe in the country than it was in Findlay on Monday morning. Freezing rain Sunday evening also formed an ice crust that is now buried beneath snow, making driving more dangerous.
• The last time Heldman recalled declaring a Level 3 was for a short time during one late January day in 2012 “so that ODOT (Ohio Department of Transportation) could get roads opened.”
• Before he declared a Level 3 this time, Heldman said he weighed the opinions of other elected county officials, including the commissioners and judges, who decided Sunday to close county offices on Monday. As with businesses and other governments, the sheriff said he was looking out for the safety of his own workforce.
• Ohio law gives counties the right to cite “non-essential, non-emergency” drivers who are traveling during a Level 3, but Hancock County doesn’t favor using that deterrent. “Here, we have always said, ‘if you can’t go somewhere safely, then don’t.’ Now, if you’re out there doing donuts and stupid stuff like that and putting lives at risk, then we’re going to cite you,” he said.
• Businesses can set their own Level 3 policies for their workforces. Some require employees to stay home. Others allow them to stay home, but without pay. Still others will ask that their workers to show up, with varying penalties if they don’t. On Monday, Wilson’s Sandwich Shop closed. Marathon Petroleum Corp. opened.
• County roads were drifting over Monday morning as fast as plows could clear them. “If it quit blowing right now, within five or six hours we’d have the roads open” and the Level 3 downgraded, Heldman said at 8:30 a.m. Monday. “But it’s very possible it could stay at Level 2 or 3 for the next 24 hours.”
• Road alerts are primarily issued because of significant snow, ice and water. But Heldman said the bitter cold also factors into his decisions about road levels. Foremost on his mind Monday morning were wind chill forecasts in the negative 40-degree range.
• Level alerts only work as long as they’re heeded. There will always be some who push their luck, and that has happened with this storm. “We’ve had some people stranded, that have needed tows. No injuries yet,” Heldman said. “I think it’s called common sense. If you look out your window, and there’s a lot of snow and ice, and there’s been a level alert issued, don’t go out.”
• Ohio Revised Code Chapter 311 gives sheriffs the authority to close roads and municipal streets for weather-related reasons to preserve “public peace.” For specifics, visit http://www.weathersafety.ohio.gov/snowemergencyclassifications.aspx
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