Several inches of snow fell during the day Jan. 28, leading to school closures, followed by a polar vortex that brought high temperatures below zero with windchills ranging from 25-40 degrees below zero for metro Detroit.

Several inches of snow fell during the day Jan. 28, leading to school closures, followed by a polar vortex that brought high temperatures below zero with windchills ranging from 25-40 degrees below zero for metro Detroit.

Photo by Kristyne Demske

Schools, firefighters, city workers deal with snow, cold in St. Clair Shores

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published January 30, 2019


ST. CLAIR SHORES — After taking a month off, winter is hitting Michigan with a vengeance, closing schools, causing snow emergencies and leading to residents huddling at home to stay warm.

Several inches of snow fell during the day Jan. 28, leading to school closures, followed by a polar vortex that brought temperatures below zero with wind chills ranging from 25 to 40 degrees below zero for metro Detroit.

When deciding when to call a snow day, Lake Shore Public Schools Superintendent Joe DiPonio said there are different factors to take into consideration.

“There’s no exact science to this, which makes it all the more challenging,” he said. “In a case where you’re calling the school based upon a forecast, you want to try and do it in a time period that’s going to give parents a good heads up, but it’s not so premature that if the forecast were to change you can’t undo that decision.”

With heavy snow forecasted to begin in the late morning of Jan. 28, DiPonio said that making the call to cancel school that day came because of the dangerous conditions that teenage drivers and the buses would have faced on the way home from school.

But while many surrounding districts closed the following day, Lake Shore Public Schools and other St. Clair Shores districts kept their doors open. DiPonio said that’s because the St. Clair Shores Department of Public Works did a great job of cleaning the neighborhoods, especially the bus routes, overnight Jan. 28-29. And then, when he discovered worse conditions on a side street behind one of the elementary schools, he said the department came out quickly to clear that road as well, even though it wasn’t on a bus route.

The rest of the week, the record-setting cold temperatures and wind chills made making the decision to cancel school easier, DiPonio said.

“If you look at the amount of time that it’s going to take a child or anyone to get frostbite ... if we have kids walking 15 to 20 minutes, if they’re waiting at the bus stop ... worst-case scenario, if a bus were to break down or be delayed ... there’s a lot of factors (to consider),” he said. “There’s a lot of things that can go wrong (if) you look at it from a parental standpoint.

“It’s Michigan and it’s winter — you can’t shut down till April, but it’s almost kind of like those extremes. Fifty-below wind chill, it’s an easy call to make.”

School districts can take six days off for snow or cold before they have to add days or minutes to the year, or apply for a waiver from the state.

But whether a district is approaching that limit “shouldn’t be a factor in the decision making,” DiPonio said.

“Either it’s safe or it’s not. That’s really the bottom line.”

St. Clair Shores firefighters have to be on the job, and out in the cold, regardless of the temperatures, Chief James Piper said, but there are certain precautions the department takes to protect its workers.

“The firefighters have all of our normal-duty uniform that we would wear, (which) keeps them pretty warm. On top of that ... is bunker gear. The firefighting suits, those are actually, the way it keeps the heat out in a fire ... it also works as a pretty good suit for staying warm,” Piper said.

The department responded to a call for a gas leak on Newberry Street Jan. 30, but while the firefighters had to wait on scene for the gas company to respond, they were most likely decked out in their bunker gear and waiting inside the truck, he said.

“The officers, they take extra precautions to look out for the firefighters on any day that’s cold,” he said.

And while crew chiefs have to make sure firefighters take breaks and don’t get overheated in warm weather, similar precautions are taken during this dangerous cold.

“We do what we have to do, of course. If it takes three people to do the work and I’ve got four people on scene, one of those people might be rotating inside,” Piper said.

The department responded to a vehicle crash on Interstate 94 and a small house fire that was mostly contained by the time the department responded Jan. 29.

“If we’d have been out there for any length of time, we could have gotten extra people to switch out,” Piper said.

Firefighters have to keep hoses running slightly while on a scene to keep them from freezing up, but that can create an ice rink for the crew, so they also have to keep snow melt on hand to stay safe. The department is even preparing for winter in the warmer months — when they finish using a fire hydrant, the water is blown back into the pipes and out of the hydrant so that it isn’t frozen when firefighters try to use it in the winter.

“It’s a job about creative problem solving, so we get in there and do what needs to be done as quickly as possible,” Piper said.

Piper said that the department has been called for a few more slip-and-fall accidents recently, and when the snow hit, it sent a crew out in a truck equipped with a plow on ambulance calls to make sure that emergency medical service workers could get in and out of driveways and homes safely.

“They’ll assist the crew if needed, (and) while the medical crew is working, they’ll shovel the walk or the drive. Getting the cot up to the house is a challenge in the snow,” he said.

St. Clair Shores declared a snow emergency Jan. 28 to make sure plows could make it through the city after the snowstorm. Department of Public Works Director Bryan Babcock said that they began plowing main streets at 11 a.m. Jan. 28 and wrapped up at around midnight, then began clearing side streets at 7 a.m. Jan. 29. They finished 12 hours later.

While the department typically deals with one to three water main breaks a day during the colder weather, Babcock said Jan. 30 that the DPW took a break from working on them that day because of the dangerous cold.

“We’ve been doing water main breaks yesterday, and we’ll get started on them again tomorrow. Today, we decided it wasn’t safe,” he said.

Babcock said he made that call because of the weather conditions and the fact that, as of that morning, there was only one break running with a very slow leak that was not flooding or icing the street.

“If it was (flooding), we’d have no choice but to go out and dig,” he said. “We fixed three yesterday.”