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Campus under a polar vortex

February 11, 2019

Due to extremely cold weather, Chancellor Dean Van Galen announced that classes were canceled on Jan. 29, beginning at noon, and all day Jan. 30, as well as the morning of Jan. 31, at the UW- River Falls campus. Extreme cold alerts had been going out all across the midwest as an arctic wind blew in.

According to an urgent weather message released for River Falls by the National Weather Service on January 30, “Wind chills will remain in the 35 to 50 below zero range this afternoon. While winds will become light tonight, occasional breezes will combine with air temperatures around 30 below, to produce wind chill values of 40 to 45 below again,” the report continued.

“This is a life-threatening situation for those spending any prolonged period outdoors without proper clothing. A Wind Chill Warning is in effect through Thursday morning area wide. A record low temperature is possible in the Twin Cities Thursday morning. The record for Thursday is 27 below zero.”

The university and Emergency Management team gathered information to make an informed decision regarding class cancellation. Campus was informed through text message, phone call, social media, email alert, and several announcements were made.

Executive Director of Facilities Alan Symicek had a very busy few days. According to Symicek, water pipes froze, “[I]n the Falcon center, in an area where the new building connected to Knowles and Locker Room Building. [The] KFA vestibule entrance heater froze and cracked; a puddle of water leaked on to the floor.” A heater froze and a pipe burst in Ames Suites Lounge due to a window that was left open, and lastly a mop sink water pipe burst in Centennial Science.

Heating the university during these historic temperatures was no easy task. “We typically turn the heat down in buildings overnight and weekends when they are not occupied to conserve energy, similar to homeowners turning their heat down when they are not at home.  During extremely cold weather like we had last week, we do not turn the heat down so that the buildings stay warmer and help prevent freezing of water pipes,” Symicek continued. “The cost to maintain the temperature inside the building is very small compared to the potential cost of damage to the buildings should water pipes freeze and burst.”

The university utilizes  natural gas fuel as its primary source of heat, however, during the polar vortex the university had to extend the burn of coal and also fuel oil as a backup fuel. “The natural gas utility company could not supply enough gas through existing distribution pipelines in our region so our campus heating plant was forced to burn our backup fuels: coal and fuel oil.  This is the reason we have backup fuels to maintain heat to campus buildings. We were off of our primary fuel, natural gas, for about one week during the historic cold weather last week,” Symicek said.

Symicek also mentioned that the university struggled to keep ice off the streets, parking lots and sidewalks. Symicek said, “Salt does not work at very low temperatures to melt ice.”

During the snow days, some teachers took to Canvas, uploading video lectures or reading assignment while others shifted schedules around. Despite the surge in online classrooms, the Division of Technology Services (DoTS) on campus received few calls, but were not unaffected.

Mirza Naveed, a Tier 1 service center technician at DoTs, saw the impacts of the extreme cold and class cancellations during the period of Jan. 29 through Jan. 30. Naveed said, “I would say the weather did impact DoTs. For example, we are usually open until 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, but due to the weather, management decided to cut our hours of operation to 4:30 p.m. yesterday and today.”

Naveed continued, “Since our hours were shortened, that meant if someone needed tech help after 4:30 yesterday and today they wouldn’t be able to get it until the next morning.

Director of the University Center and Dining Services Cara Rubis also commented that during the days off, “The University Center remained open, not only due to the dining locations in the building but also to continue to provide the services within the University Center which students rely on; the Falcon Center did the same. The Facilities Management staff did a great job of handling frozen pipes and keeping the buildings warm.  The Emergency Management Team was also very thorough on their communications and updates to campus related to class cancellations and services available.”

Rubis mentioned that the dining locations were quieter than usual during the extreme cold.

“There were times I was surprised to see the number of students who came to the University Center to dine, study, socialize, or to simply warm-up by the fireplace,” said Rubis.

Chief of Police on campus Karl Fleury commented that there was not an increase in calls during the below zero temperatures. “I believe the students, faculty and staff that were impacted with these weather conditions listened to the notifications that were sent out. This helped to alleviate some of those potential problems and made people aware of the extreme weather conditions. We didn’t see a rise in calls, and pedestrian traffic was actually reduced. People were staying inside.

Overall, people heeded the warning and followed the guidelines to protect themselves.”

The campus police made an effort to monitor the campus and make sure there were no issues. Officers checked with students who had vehicle issues and made sure any stragglers had appropriate clothing for the weather.

Many locations on campus experienced staffing issues during the polar vortex. Rubis mentioned that for Dining Services, “We had staff that weren’t able to come to work due to issues with vehicles, childcare, etc. because of the extreme cold temperatures, but that was expected. Chartwells closed certain dining locations early, and some locations were not opened at all, so the focus could be spent on supporting a smaller number of dining locations. Chartwells provided free hats, gloves and scarfs for staff who worked into the late evening and night.”

To clarify, Chartwells is a professional food service firm that provides dining services to campus.

“The management at DoTs was very understanding and let us know that if we did not feel comfortable coming in for our shifts, we just needed to let them know and then we didn’t have to come in. As you can imagine, many student employees did take this option,” said Naveed.

Due to the smaller staff, there was an impact on the speed of fixing various technology issues. Naveed said, “At one point, I was by myself and I was taking calls and doing chat sessions. There were less calls than usual.”

As for the campus police, Fleury said, “We work in all sorts of weather conditions. Our officers are aware to dress appropriately and to monitor themselves because you never know what type of call you might be put out on. You have to get enough staff to rotate people in and out to protect your officers. But they were here.”

Fleury continued, “They experienced some of the same problems our students experienced, I had one officer whose truck wouldn’t start. Another officer had pipes freeze in his home, but they still came into their job and to make sure our campus is safe.”