Winter storm battle planning – inside NJDOT’s war room
No matter how many snow and ice events they experience firsthand in New Jersey, state transportation officials will never have an easy task battling Old Man Winter. He always has the upper hand, and members of the state Department of Transportation have had their hands full over the past couple months.
This week alone, spreaders and plows were mobilized for three different winter events.
In a conversation with Townsquare Media, DOT Assistant Commissioner of Operations Andrew Tunnard offered a detailed glimpse into the state's action plan and execution for winter storms.
The department pays attention to the weather "all day, every day," according to Tunnard, but when their weather service notifies them of a problem on the horizon, the action begins, sometimes days before the first flakes are expected to fall.
"Our first line of defense is if we can brine," said Tunnard, noting the weather conditions sometimes don't allow for the pre-storm spreading. "When we can apply brine, it lets us get to the blacktop quicker."
The state is divided into 12 subregions to make the action plan easier to understand and maintain. Depending on the severity of the forecasted storm, the move will be made to mobilize a combination of New Jersey's three emergency operation centers.
New Jersey has a handful of response levels, the highest being "level 4," which is considered a "full plowing event."
"We call in not only our state forces, but also our contracted spreading forces and our contracted plowing forces," Tunnard said.
For the more severe events, a special fusion center in Woodbridge becomes the brain of the operations. Tunnard and his staff, along with members of the Turnpike Authority and State Police, and sometimes New Jersey Transit, join to take on the storm until the worst is over.
"It's not chaos, but it's tense," Tunnard said. "There's definitely a lot of caffeine that flows through."
The fusion center can seat up to 100 individuals.
The department succeeds and fails at the hands of the forecast. Many times, it is spot on and so is the action plan, but there have been instances when the DOT is "playing catch-up" due to more snow or ice than expected. On the other hand, an overblown weather prediction, such as the blizzard that fizzled in late January, could result in overplanning for the department.
"Our decisions have to be made several hours in advance, perhaps a day in advance, and once you have that machine in motion, you have to let it play out," Tunnard said. "We try to err on the side of caution and safety all the time."