Urban Politics #277: Council Snow Response Report

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.



In the wake of the March Seattle Times reporting about the City’s snow response, the City Council commissioned a study of the Seattle Department of Transportation’s response to the December snowstorm.

Council Staff, along with the City Auditor’s Office, reviewed internal e-mails, crew reports, snow and ice operational manuals,dispatch logs, the Winter Storm Response Plan, and other internal documents; interviewed SDOT management and operations staff, and toured the Charles Street Maintenance facility. SDOT was fully cooperative.


SDOT carried out an after action report, primarily by senior staff. The Council report notes there was no direct input from line staff, crew chiefs, or supervisors. SDOT acknowledges that their report was not exhaustive and includes mostly short term improvements. Areas for improvement included better coordination with Metro, a revised road salt policy, an early mobilization of SDOT’s Incident Management Team, and garnering assistance from private contractors when needed. The report was carried out in a short period of time at the Mayor’s request, which is understandable given that the winter snow season was still on. However, because of the short time frame it is not comprehensive. Council staff reviewed items beyond what was included in SDOT’s report.



The Council report analyzes operations and organization, including operations management, planning, dispatching priorities, and training. A number of conclusions are troubling, and point toward a need for better overall emergency management. What follows is a brief summary of the report.

The report states, “Inadequate systems for tracking progress and making decisions may have compromised strategic deployment of resources by senior staff and management,” and notes that SDOT lacks a modern work order tracking system to clearly document field work.

For example, in operations management, dry erase boards were used to track daily progress on snow removal, without compiling what had been accomplished. There was no clear record, aside from hand written crew reports. It does not appear that this information was entered into computers, for example. There was a lack of real-time information tracking. Together, this limited tracking of outcomes and accountability.

In dispatch and deployment priorities, there was no documented policy for dispatchers to prioritize calls for plowing; not all incoming calls went to dispatch, and there was limited to no tracking of outcomes.

Further, there was no big picture analysis of monitoring by senior management regarding whether the Winter Storm Response Plan was working, when clearly it wasn’t.

SDOT also did not begin to use Incident Command System principles until 11 days into the event. This is the federally-recommended emergency management approach ordered by the Mayor in 2005. What took place to implement these procedures from 2005-8 is not covered in the report. The City’s Emergency Operations Center was not fully informed about the deteriorating effectiveness of the SDOT response, and the Director of Street Maintenance managed the response on his own with no help from above.

Planning and Management

The report states that SDOT’s snow response policies are unclear and may leave too much discretion to staff:

The residential plowing policy appears inconsistent; work done by hand had very little coordination, with the unintended consequences of disproportionate response for some neighborhoods. The salt policy appears to have been developed in 2-3 days, with no consultation of experts or other jurisdictions. SDOT apparently used some road salt earlier than had been previously indicated. The policy on the use of blades is discretionary, and there appears to be no written policy on whether to use rubber or carbide blades. There is a clear need for consistent terminology to describe whether a road is clear.

The management structure may have contributed to the operations problems. For example, the snow response supervisors didn’t normally work with drivers. Training may also be an issue.


The picture this report paints helps clarify why the City’s snow response was ineffective:

  • Planning: lack of clarity in policies to guide city employees in their work, and in setting priorities
  • Management: issues of structure, oversight, and discretion
  • Operations: lack of real-time tracking of work, and lack of coherent, computerized record keeping to track progress over time

The guiding thread uniting these problems is the lack of clear application of Emergency Management principles, which provide a clear structure, and clearly defined roles to carry out necessary tasks-in advance.

These issues must be addressed. To its credit, while SDOT has taken some productive steps already, more work is needed. The report recommends an independent management improvement plan for SDOT, a recommendation I fully support. The Mayor has agreed to this plan. The Council coordinated a similar effort in 2006 with City Light after a severe windstorm that resulted in City Light being better prepared for future windstorms as a result of the application of emergency management principles.

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