City keeps round-the-clock storm vigil

From operations center, officials track progress, monitor problem areas

The Snowstorm Of 2003

February 17, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Tucked inside a nondescript brick building alongside the Jones Falls Expressway is the heart of Baltimore's efforts to battle the snow's assault on city streets - the Transportation Emergency Operations Center.

Here, in a large room, city workers dispatched snowplows, tracked the storm's progress and gave special attention to people with serious medical conditions.

"We brought in our full force, and we've been around for three consecutive days," Adrienne D. Barnes, spokeswoman for the city's Office of Transportation, said yesterday morning as the snow fell steadily outside. "We haven't done that this season until now. This around-the-clock rotation has been unusual."

Activated at 7 p.m. Friday, the emergency center pulled together city departments such as public works, waste water, fire, police, and recreation and parks in a coordinated effort to keep roads passable.

Maps and charts highlighting sectors of the city were splashed across the walls of the room, while storm images were projected on a big screen on the back wall.

Even as city agencies focused on primary roadways, they took special care to get to other streets where heart, cancer and dialysis patients live.

About 1,500 patients who have registered with the health department are in a database shared with the Public Works Department, helping to ensure they can get to appointments in bad weather, said Eric Brown, who's coordinating emergency services for public works. It's also vital that the patients' roads are clear so emergency vehicles can get to them if necessary.

Brown was one of about a dozen representatives seated yesterday at a u-shaped, wooden table in the center of the room. Department heads checked in by telephone with on-site supervisors. They also kept an eye on the big-screen projection of radar images of the storm.

On the same screen, they could switch to live camera footage of city streets. Big Brother watched Baltimore through five-second segments that showed a city draped in white, from cameras perched above primary city roads such as Russell, Pratt and Howard streets and the Jones Falls Expressway at Cold Spring Lane. Several times, people in the room gave out sighs as they saw motorists spinning out.

Next to the screen was a smaller television tuned to news coverage of the storm.

Adjoining the main room is another where about a dozen employees from the Office of Transportation kept track of the 150 snowplows going in and out of yards, and onto city streets. On a giant dry-erase board, truck-shaped magnets marked with numbers were being moved around constantly as they went through the 104 zones into which the city is divided.

Drivers are encouraged to stick to routes they know, said William Colbert, an engineer for the office of transportation.

"They know their zones, and things to watch out for, like low-hanging trees, parked cars and speed humps," Colbert said.

On another wall in the room, a board tracked the progress of equipment repairs, from transmissions to iced windshield wiper blades.

When shifts change at midnight and noon, agency representatives provide a briefing and update as they hand off to the next shift.

A rundown at noon yesterday showed steady progress on keeping one lane on primary and secondary roads passable, 94 complaints and a run on windshield wiper blades.

Alfred H. Foxx, director of the office of transportation, had some advice for others in the room: "Keep in good spirits and keep moving."

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