With a January low around 21 degrees, Pittsburgh averages 28 inches of snowfall per year—and the Office of Facilities Management stands at the ready with every forecast.
“If you can walk on it, it needs to be cleared,” said Andy Moran, senior manager of grounds, referring to surfaces around the Pittsburgh campus. “That’s what we strive for, and by the end of the snow, we’ll have that.”
The City of Pittsburgh clears streets like Forbes and Fifth avenues, but Pitt’s team handles all University properties, including Heinz Chapel, the Stephen Foster Memorial and the Petersen Events Center. Sidewalks along Forbes and Fifth avenues are managed by Pitt wherever they cross in front of University buildings.
Scott Bernotas, associate vice chancellor for facilities management, added, “Our grounds maintenance teams are committed to keeping all campus areas clear and safe, working together across public and educational sectors.”
Familiarity and preparation fosters expertise
Moran has led the University’s inclement weather response for the past five years. And while every blizzard begins with a flurry, his team begins planning for that weather long before there’s a snowflake in the forecast.
Starting in October, Moran works with his team to begin planning snow routes, dividing the Pittsburgh campus’s 32 miles of sidewalks and 2,000 steps among 34 groundskeepers and 15 or more facilities management staff in other roles like custodial or maintenance. Every staff member has an area of the campus, called a zone, they oversee throughout the calendar year.
In general, Moran assigns routes based on staff members' zones, and they become familiar with the maintenance for the routes and the people who most frequent them. This helps them anticipate when to prioritize certain surfaces, like stairs or ramps, to accommodate accessibility needs.
After assigning around two dozen routes, Moran and his team begin preparing and maintaining equipment, including adding plows and ice melt spreaders and ensuring everything functions properly.
In recent years and with an eye toward sustainability, the University has invested in electric snow blowers and adopted drop spreaders to use instead of spinners. These spreaders give their operators more precise control of ice melt materials.
A snow crew meeting occurs during the first week of November. Snow routes are assigned and the team goes over any buildings new to the campus. There’s also cold weather training, which includes operational videos on things like driving a snowplow and preventing hypothermia.
This year, Moran’s team put that training to use almost as soon as it was completed, handling frigid temperatures and flurries that occurred around Nov. 12. “It’s good to get everyone prepared and ensure we’re ready for what’s ahead throughout Pittsburgh’s winter weather season,” Moran said.
Putting the plan into action
Over the course of a season, the team sees what it calls "snow events," everything from “nuisance snows”—inch-deep dustings that happen over several hours—to big storms of six or eight inches to major blizzards.
Using a University-customized weather forecasting service to predict potential snowfall, Moran collects data like what time snow will begin and how much will fall over how many hours. He uses the information not only to decide how many staff members to bring in but also to anticipate critical equipment needs.
Throughout this process, Moran’s team is connected with the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Management, the Office of the Chancellor and the Pitt Police Department to share winter conditions information and updates.
“Our ultimate goal is to have the campus clear of snow, safe and salted before anybody arrives,” said Dan Fisher, assistant vice chancellor of operations and maintenance. “We also keep our staff members in mind. If, during major snow events, they’re here for 12 hours, they are then off for 12 hours before returning to work, rotating our grounds maintenance team to support campus needs 24/7.”
Added Fisher: “One thing we remain fully aware of is this is our students’ home. They live here. Whether in or out of classes, they are still out walking and participating in activities, relying on us for foundational maintenance services and support every day.”
“We closely manage and monitor all areas, and ask people to contact us if they’re aware of any additional icy or snowy spots, with crews available 24/7,” he said.
Read more about the Office of Facilities Management’s weather readiness.