Many areas of Chesterfield received 1 to 2 inches of snow and sleet Sunday, creating slick road conditions
The winter storm that hit Chesterfield County on Sunday came as no surprise to Jess Robison. It literally had been on her radar for the past week.
As Chesterfield’s emergency management coordinator, Robison is responsible for monitoring weather forecasts, ensuring that essential workers are prepared to respond promptly to adverse impacts and helping county administration make “informed decisions” about whether conditions on the ground necessitate the closure or delayed opening of local government facilities.
“We’re not the decision-makers – we’re advisers,” Robison said. “It’s our job to think 6 to 12 hours ahead and communicate with other departments to make sure we have resources on standby.”
That process began early last week with a conference call with officials from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the National Weather Service.
Robison also receives regular weather updates from Dominion Energy, which has a team of in-house meteorologists tracking potential service interruptions for its millions of customers in Virginia and other states.
Based on newly updated forecasts, Emergency Management issues a series of “spot reports” to county and school administration, public safety leaders, department directors and external partners, such as the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
“It’s basically a situation report: this is what’s expected weather-wise, these are the potential impacts, where it might be worse in some parts of Chesterfield than others just because [the county’s land mass] is so big,” Robison said.
Because of the timing of the weekend storm, and the fact that the county government and schools already were scheduled to be closed Monday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there was no urgency for County Administrator Dr. Joe Casey and Superintendent Dr. Merv Daugherty to make early-morning decisions on snow-related closures this time.
Typically when there is snow in the forecast, Casey receives a call at 5:30 a.m. from the Chesterfield Police Department’s night-shift commander, updating him about road conditions and any vehicle accidents in different parts of the county.
Casey stays in constant communication with Daugherty, who makes facility closure decisions for Chesterfield County Public Schools. He also talks with leaders of the other large Richmond-area jurisdictions – Henrico, Hanover and Richmond – to understand what’s happening with the weather regionally.
“We don’t necessarily have to be uniform [in our decision-making], but we understand there are people across the region trying to get here for work. There also are businesses in Chesterfield that rely upon what we do [when deciding whether to open or close], so there’s an inherent responsibility to do the right thing on behalf of the entire county,” Casey said.
Casey tries to make a call on closures or delayed openings by 6 a.m. “because the engine of the county starts soon thereafter.”
Specifically, crews from the Parks and Recreation, General Services and Environmental Engineering departments are on standby to begin clearing snow and ice from parking lots at schools, the county government complex, fire stations, police stations and libraries.
Those same departments have employees who are deployed to remove fallen trees from Chesterfield roadways during winter storms and other inclement weather events.
“It’s really a big, robust operation. It’s incredible how much work they can get done in a short period of time,” Robison said. “What that does is free up the fire department from having to do that work so they can focus on emergency calls.”
While VDOT is responsible for maintaining roads in Chesterfield, the county “mobilizes resources to help clear the roadways to allow for emergency access into neighborhoods and restore traffic flow as soon as it is safe to do so,” she added.
If there’s a phrase that describes Chesterfield’s overall response to severe weather and other emergencies, it’s “all hands on deck.”
Thousands of county households were left without power during last February’s crippling ice storm. Chesterfield opened three public libraries for use as warming and phone charging stations; library staff also worked with the Emergency Communications Center, Social Services and Information Systems Technology to marshal resources and meet residents’ varied needs in real time.
“The partnerships really are incredible,” Robison said. “Never once have I ever heard anyone say ‘That’s not my job – I’m not doing that.’ That’s a huge level of commitment. It doesn’t matter what department. We do what we have to do.”
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Chesterfield also has made significant investments to increase its teleworking capacity. Now even when county buildings are closed due to inclement weather, many employees shift seamlessly to working from home and continue providing vital services to their customers.
“Just like you hear about around the country, these are employer workplace practices that we are figuring out” because of increasing demand for such accommodations, Casey said.
“A good worker is a good worker whether they’re in an office or they’re at home, if they’re given the proper tools,” he added.