Making 'the call': OU meteorologist discusses winter weather closures

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Snow

An OU flag covered in snow Nov. 12, 2018.

When winter weather looms in the forecast, OU’s decision-makers gather to listen to Kevin Kloesel.

Kloesel, the university’s meteorologist, is never off the grid. He has backup power and internet at his home. He is always within reach of a phone and computer. He refuses to board a plane without Wi-Fi. 

Kloesel is a crucial member of OU’s Emergency Response Team, a group of senior campus leaders that shares information with OU’s president and vice president of operations before they make the call to cancel classes. Kloesel always stays connected — just in case.

The playbook

Any potential decision to cancel classes is part of the emergency operations plan, which features different “annexes” for possible events.

“Every annex is the playbook for the specific situation,” said Kloesel, who moved to his current role in 2014 after serving as an associate dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences. “We have one for tornadoes, we have one for winter weather, etc. So that annex describes the playbook as soon as I see a threat, and in this particular case, a threat of winter weather, weather that’s 24 hours out, a week out, whatever it is.”

As Kloesel follows the playbook, he updates the Emergency Response Team and other members of the OU community. In the three to five days before a weather event is projected to occur, he sends out a daily briefing with forecast updates.

Forecasts Kloesel incorporates in his assessment include public forecasts by the National Weather Service and private forecasting services purchased by the university. Kloesel can analyze data at his office in the National Weather Center or at a workstation in a conference room in the Nuclear Engineering Laboratory. Should he need to monitor inclement weather events during off-hours, Kloesel has similar resources available at home.

Kloesel uses these tools to forecast potential weather outcomes across the Norman area.

“Winter weather especially is very difficult. Winter weather doesn’t touch everyone equally. No two people are directly impacted the exact same way in winter weather,” Kloesel said. “We may have an area of Norman that gets snow, and an area of Norman that gets sleet and an area of Norman that gets freezing rain. It can be that different across small distances.”

‘Make the call!’

Students post, tweet and snap the rallying cry to cancel classes every time the possibility of winter precipitation enters the forecast.

Pre-law senior Bradon Christian said the decision to cancel class is always welcome.

“A lot of the times, I’m hoping that they do,” Christian said. “Any time I can get an extension on a paper or an assignment, that’s good.”

Kloesel said students’ most-desired response to winter weather events is clear.

“I’ve never ever, in all of my years here, have ever seen a text, a tweet, an email or a phone call that says, ‘Kevin, please, please, please, let’s have school tomorrow. Please let’s have school tomorrow.’ Not a one,” Kloesel said.

The pleas for an unscheduled respite crescendo as the Emergency Response Team members use Kloesel’s forecast to discuss how the event will affect different aspects of campus.

“(The team) includes every aspect of this campus from executive leadership, marketing and communications, facilities, maintenance, parking and transportation, student life, emergency preparedness, police and housing,” Kloesel said. “Almost every element that could be touched by weather is involved ... in providing information to the vice president of operations and the president of the university to inform any decision on this campus relative to weather.”

In the day before the event, Kloesel increases communication with the Emergency Response Team, providing roughly three updates during the day.

“Winter weather doesn’t typically manifest exactly what is going to happen until hours before it occurs, and the decision is something that we like to make ahead of time,” Kloesel said. “So, when we’re making the decision, there typically is a huge amount of uncertainty associated with the forecast, and that makes it all the more difficult, especially when people are begging and wanting school to be closed.”

The night before the event, the Emergency Response Team convenes in person or virtually to determine if any action should be taken.

“We get together the night before ... to try to decide, are we making the decision now — is there enough information to do that? Or are we going to wait until, say, 4, 5, 6 in the morning to see what happens?” Kloesel said. “If we’re still at 8 o’clock the night before, and we’re not quite sure this is going to happen, then we’ll reconvene at 4 o’clock in the morning if we have to, to try and get the word out before.”

Building pressure

The meeting to discuss canceling class tends to come after Norman Public Schools and Moore Public Schools release their decisions, ratcheting up the pressure for OU to cancel classes.

Kloesel said Norman and Moore Public Schools make their decision with different factors in mind than the OU administration.

Public school districts often have buses running at 4 a.m., Kloesel said, which can be too early to make a decision on the morning of potential severe weather. And their students may have to stand at cold bus stops for prolonged periods.

Though OU does not assess all the same factors as public schools, Kloesel said the university does take their decisions into account because families and others are affected.

“Can we make the decision early enough so that they can arrange for daycare, or not? Is it something where we think it’s dangerous enough (where) we want our parents to stay home with their kids? Those kinds of things all go into that agonizing discussion,” Kloesel said.

If the Emergency Response Team does feel there is enough information for a decision to cancel classes, the goal is to make the decision before 10 p.m., if possible.

But sometimes the forecast is too uncertain. If there is not enough information yet, Kloesel said the team will reconvene early in the morning.

Decision delivery

If the vice president of operations and president agree to cancel classes, Kloesel follows the annex to alert the OU community in tiers through email.

“There’s a group of people that are on this email tree. That group of people is, of course, OU leadership emergency team,” Kloesel said. “Then there are folks that are somewhat in the need-to-know.”

Those in the “need-to-know” are the university contacts for any university or campus event. These contacts are contained in a binder Kloesel carries with him. It holds the details for every event on campus for the next several days.

After alerting the top two levels of the email tree, Kloesel uses Rave, the emergency notification system for the university. The new system, launched Aug. 9, sends texts, emails and phone calls to the 48,221 individuals in the system, said Kesha Keith, director of media relations.

As the system sends out notifications, Kloesel also tweets additional information from the OU Emergency Preparedness Twitter account.

The phrase “the call” originates from notification by pre-recorded phone call from the president of the university, most recently from former OU President David Boren. 

But the days of pre-recorded messages may be over. Former OU President James Gallogly did not record a new message, and interim OU President Joseph Harroz has yet to do so.

“From a practical emergency standpoint, in terms of streamlining what we do, we want the information to go out as quickly as possible, and that is not a quick solution,” Kloesel said.

Some students miss the recorded voice message, and it adds additional time to the notification process.

“That’d be nice to have,” Christian said. “It seems a little bit more personal. Like you took the time to do it for us to record that.”

As scrutiny builds surrounding potential school cancellation, Kloesel maintains that the focus of the Emergency Response Team never wavers.

“There will always be those instances where we’ll be wrong, too. We know that. We are not going to be right every single time. But we are never going to make a decision that we know would compromise life safety. Ever.”

Of course, the agonizing decision to some is not always perceived so seriously.

Christian’s reaction to hearing “the call?”

“Hell yeah. ... Hell yeah.”

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