More than 2,000 Wisconsin motorists were stranded on I-39/90 when a severe snowstorm struck the southern portion of the state Feb. 5 – 7, 2008. Although interagency coordination was excellent at the beginning of the storm, it became nonexistent as darkness fell on the stranded motorists, according to a report by the state's adjutant general. Photo: Joseph W. Jackson III/Copyright Wisconsin State Journal. Reprinted with permission.

Most of us think of snow and ice control work as routine and just part of what we do. This attitude needs to change.

I know how to make that transformation: by learning the Incident Command System (ICS), a key feature of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2004 to standardize and coordinate emergency-response procedures among first responders at the local, state, regional, and, ultimately, national levels. My team now views snow and ice control from this more holistic standpoint, earning more respect from — and working more effectively with — other city departments and surrounding jurisdictions as a result.

If all agencies were to follow this approach, mutual aid and incident response would be better coordinated when emergency events escalate. But first we must understand why winter events should be considered “incidents.”

Homeland Security Presidential Directive-5 (HSPD-5), Management of Domestic Incidents, defines “first responder” as an individual who, in the early stages of an incident, is responsible for protecting and preserving life, property, and the environment. In addition to emergency response providers, this includes other skilled support personnel — such as equipment operators — who provide immediate support services during prevention, response, and recovery operations.

Thus, by definition, public works is a first responder when it comes to snow and ice control.

It took awhile for us to realize this. Like most operations, our employees went through ICS-200 training because it's mandatory. We didn't go much beyond that level because we felt it didn't apply to what we do, and because — let's face it — the online course is tedious.

But two events in 2008 spurred us to change this mind-set.

The first was a severe winter storm that completely stopped northbound traffic for almost nine hours on Interstate 39/90 in southern Wisconsin. On a normal February weekday, northbound traffic on I-39/90 between Madison and Janesville is about 1,200 vehicles/hour during the morning commute. As the storm stalled over southern Wisconsin, heavy snow kept falling and a strong north wind gusted to 36 mph. When the sun came up the next day, the area had received 21 inches of snow and more than 2,000 vehicles had spent much of the afternoon and a long, cold night in a 20-mile line of unmoving traffic.

The lead responding agency — Wisconsin State Patrol — and ultimately more than 20 other agencies and jurisdictions responded to the incident. But interagency coordination became sporadic, and at times nonexistent, as the storm developed. Incident command was not clearly communicated to all responding agencies.

At the direction of the governor, the state's adjutant general reviewed the response to the incident and found that there was virtually no coordination between state and county highway departments. In every scenario that becomes a large-scale emergency, there's a “tipping point” when the required response exceeds the capability of the lead agency. The tipping point occurred at 4 p.m. on Feb. 6, at which point some motorists had been sitting in stopped traffic for more than four hours. Traffic backed up from just south of Madison to, at times, the Illinois border nearly 55 miles away.