Last winter broke records for snow accumulation and extreme cold. Unfortunately, for those working in municipal governments around the Commonwealth, it broke records for overtime work, building and property damage, and stress levels as well.
Getting pummeled by multiple storms in such a short period of time not only tested our personal and professional limits, but also taught us a few things about preparing for what is to come in the next few months.
During MIIA’s recent member conference focused on “Lessons Learned from Last Winter” in Westford, keynote speaker Harvey Leonard, chief meteorologist at WCVB-TV, recapped the season’s stats and explained just how remarkable a winter it was. A large part of the problem, he noted, were the abnormally extreme temperatures for days on end – resulting in February and March setting a record as the coldest time period since record-keeping began in 1872. And, despite the longer sunny days, we saw more and more snow accumulation with very little melting. During the most intense part of the season, the region endured four major storms over the course of less than four weeks – and the snowiest 30 days on record.
On the municipal insurance front, the number of claims filed with MIIA as a result of last winter’s extreme weather rose exponentially when compared to an average winter. Total claims filed across all liability categories – general liability, auto liability, inland marine (plows and other heavy equipment), and property – increased by 21 percent from the previous year. The largest spike was in the area of property claims, which rose by 50 percent.
Mike Cusack, executive vice president of Cabot Risk, noted during the MIIA conference that weather-related property damage can be extremely detrimental to local governments because of the essential role that schools, town halls, and public works and public safety facilities play in the daily operations of communities.
As the entity responsible for streets and public ways, and as a property owner responsible for building maintenance, Cusack said, municipalities face an array of liability exposures related to the impact of snow and ice on local roads and potential damages suffered by residents. These exposure areas can be complicated, he said, and state laws and regulations are in place to define what towns and cities must do to fix potholes, clear roadways, and manage snow and ice accumulation.
On the workers’ compensation side, municipalities can be liable for employee injuries and accidents, including slips, falls, vehicle accidents (strikes), and lifting and bending. During winter months, Cusack said, the added risks of cold stress and extreme fatigue come into play, particularly for public works and public safety employees who work physically hard, often with extended overtime hours and overnight shifts.
Planning and preparation
Even a seasoned forecaster like Leonard can’t predict what is in store for us this winter, but municipalities can take steps to prepare as much as possible. At the MIIA conference, representatives from various aspects of municipal government – public works, public safety and town management – discussed lessons learned and best practices for weathering the next storm season.
The tips shared include the following:
• Thoroughly winterize all municipal buildings before the season begins. High incidences of MIIA claims were related to frozen pipes and damaged computer systems, as well as ice dams, Cusack reported. Develop and implement a detailed temperature management plan, and ensure that gutters are cleaned well in advance. Close rooftop vents for HVAC units, as they can freeze and explode.
• Be aware of state legal requirements for taking “reasonable care” in clearing snow and ice from public buildings and roadways. “Go beyond a plan,” Cusack said, because, in the case of an adverse event, the municipality must be able to demonstrate specific efforts made to prevent accidents or injuries.
• Plan salt and sand inventories (place advance orders when possible), and strategize plow routes prior to the start of the storm season. Westford Highway Superintendent Chip Barrett suggested putting plans for snow clearing in writing and sharing them in advance with residents via town newsletters, websites, and tax bills. It’s helpful if residents know what to expect as far as how many plows will be used, which roads will be prioritized, and what de-icing materials will be used.
• Take care of employees working long hours in extreme temperatures. Encourage them to keep extra, dry clothes in their trucks and lockers, Barrett suggested. Provide bunkrooms at the public works facility if possible. Encourage breaks and provide warm meals, hot coffee and water during long-duration storms. A fatigued driver, warned Reading Police Chief James Cormier, can be just as bad as a drunk driver – therefore, rest is critical.
• Increase communication with residents using systems such as reverse 911 phone blasts, as well as less invasive methods like town website updates and an LED message board near Town Hall. Westford Town Manager Jodi Ross said her town has contracted for its own AM radio station that local officials can use to deploy brief messages quickly during an emergency.
• In addition to coordinating inter-departmentally, look for outside resources that can be leveraged. Share information and stay in touch with utility companies when power outages are an issue, and use GIS mapping (if available) to track outages, downed trees, and traffic accidents. Barrett suggested seeking out organizations that can help provide extra generators, heaters, and cell phone antennae when needed.
Finally, plan and debrief year-round. Barrett breaks it down into five categories: pre-planning, pre-storm, during storm, recovery, and post-storm.
Although some accidents cannot be avoided, others can. Check with your insurance provider for help with risk planning, winterization strategies, disaster recovery partners, and for additional insurance coverage if needed.
Lin Chabra is MIIA’s Membership and Training Coordinator, and Kevin Perkins is a Senior Loss Control Representative.