UCA takes a multi-faceted approach when deciding how to prepare for inclement winter weather. Through a combination of efforts by UCAPD, the President’s Office and the Physical Plant, the university can better plan for the worst, and be better suited to protect students and faculty from hazardous conditions.
President Tom Countway said, “In my memory, this may be one of the most extraordinary winters we have experienced in central Arkansas. We have had sleet, freezing rain, snow, ice and it has come at various times in the day and night, so it has been odd.”
Courtway said ultimately, the decision of whether to close campus or not falls to one person – the president, or chancellor in regard to other institutions.
“When there is an inclement weather forecast or a winter weather warning, we start
watching the radar very carefully,” he said. “Our police chief, [Larry] James, stays on top of it with the National Weather Service and other entities that they visit with and watch. And then, if it is something that is going to happen overnight, we generally talk around 9 at night sometimes and then we try to talk early in the morning, like 4:30 or so.”
Depending on the severity of the inclement weather, Courtway said he walks down to UCAPD, talks to dispatchers and observes road conditions not only in areas on campus or immediately adjacent to UCA, but also in the central Arkansas area as a whole, focusing on interstates and some of the highways that lead to Conway and UCA.
UCAPD Project Manager Arch Jones said the department closely watches National Weather Service alerts issued by Warning Coordination Meteorologist John Robinson, whose reports are immediately issued straight to UCAPD along with emergency managers in 45 counties across Arkansas.
“We also monitor the IDrive,” Jones said, referring to idrivearkansas.com, a new website by the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department.
The website monitors winter road conditions for the entire state and contains construction zone areas, live traffic feeds and traveler information.
The gray and blue reports issued by UCAPD via Twitter (@UCAPoliceDept) that contain road conditions for the state are made from the IDrive website.
On the homepage, one can click on the blue snowflake button on the right side of the screen to pull up this report.
“If there’s a weather warning that’s happening over the weekend and [Courtway] is wanting to decide whether to have classes on Monday and he knows that students are going to be driving in from all over the state, we can pull up this report and see what the conditions are and he’ll use that information to make his decision,” Jones said.
For most UCA students, UCAPD’s Twitter account is the first place they go to check on winter weather updates.
As of March 17, the account has 3,293 followers.
“We’ve made a big commitment to our social media beginning this year,” Jones said. “Once [Courtway] decides to cancel classes and close the campus, we will put out a UCAAlert through texts and voicemail.”
Jones said he works closely with Associate Media Relations Director Fredricka Sharkey when putting information about the school on the department’s Twitter account.
“There’s information that needs to be put out,” he said. “What are the [Christian Cafeteria] hours going to be? When is the Student Center going to be open? On that weekend before finals, [Torreyson Library] was critical. So all that information, the Student Health Center, HPER Center, all those buildings and services that students have on a regular basis. What’s the status of them?”
Staff Sgt. Brad Moore, the officer in charge of UCAPD’s Twitter account, said he gets about two hours of sleep on nights when severe winter weather warnings are in effect for the surrounding area.
“We have an enrollment of 11,000 plus, then we have about 3,600 students who live in our residence halls or in apartments we own,” Courtway said.
“So that means we have another 7,000 plus students and faculty and staff who have to use some form of transportation – whether it is walking, bicycle or some kind of motorized vehicle to get to UCA. Some may drive 30 miles, some may drive half a mile. But there are varying degrees of distance that they have to come.”
Courtway said, though campus streets may not seem bad, outlying interstates and highways leading to Conway may be hazardous.
“I have to take all of that into account and we make the best decision by gathering all the information with the paramount objective being safety,” he said.
Courtway said the number of previous cancellations during the school year does not affect his decision.
“It is purely conditions,” he said. “I am not going to let two prior cancellations cloud my judgment. I have to call it that day when I see it.”
Other people have asked Courtway if there is a maximum number of days UCA can close it’s campus, but he said that he does not know.
“Yes, we also have to be mindful of the appropriate number of days of instruction, but if it gets to be a problem, then the Provost [Steve Runge] and I will be talking,” he said.
Courtway explained that while the state has their own inclement weather policy, every institution has its own policy as well.
“Sometimes the state opens [its]offices late around noon and we have delayed opening, but we are also different because we are a university,” he said. “We have students coming to school here but we also have offices that are open. The state building just has offices. We have to be mindful of that as well.”
Two negative consequences of closing campus are that students lose a day of instruction and can also not transact any business in university offices, Courtway said.