Keys to preparing a winter weather operations manual

Dave Bergner
Superintendent of Public Works
City of Overland Park, Kansas

Each year agencies responsible for snow removal and ice control prepare for the upcoming winter by readying equipment, facilities, materials and personnel. This is normally part of the annual work cycle and those involved realize that it takes considerable time and effort to be fully ready by the "official" start of the season. Often overlooked is the need to either create or update an operations manual. Though most agencies have a manual or other documents related to winter weather operations, that information is often incomplete, obsolete or not readily accessible. However, developing a new or refining an existing manual is a task usually deferred because of the press of other matters. As public expectations grow higher and we are faced with increasing litigation risk, tighter budgets, newer technologies and changing workforces, a well-crafted operations manual can provide a sound blueprint for the planning, preparation and execution of this critical program.

Benefits of a manual
A comprehensive winter operations manual provides the following benefits:

  • Consolidates and systematically organizes all pertinent information into one readily accessible document.
  • Causes management to thoroughly plan for maximum feasible efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Contributes to consistency and continuity of operation.
  • Communicates to employees, officials and the public the information needed for a good understanding of the complexities of dealing with snow and ice control.

There is no standard format for such manuals; each agency can tailor it to its particular issues and interests. However, it is recommended that the following general topic groupings be addressed:

  • Legal: defines the reasons, responsibilities and authority of the program; provides a structure for risk management and mitigation.
  • Historical and educational: provides a record of decisions and changes made over a period of time; serves as a source for public information and awareness; provides a basis for training.
  • Strategic: defines the overall operational doctrine of the agency.
  • Tactical: details the technical aspects of implementing the program and the methods and procedures to be followed in various situations.

It is best to begin developing a new manual or revising an existing one well in advance of the next winter. This allows an ample period for feedback and new ideas as well as sufficient time to implement major changes.

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Getting started
First, determine who will be responsible for the writing, editing, review and production of the manual. This may be the work of one or two employees in smaller agencies while large ones use a team approach and assign different sections to various employees.

Next, set a schedule for completion of specific tasks and a deadline for final production and release. Make this a priority. Then prepare a tentative outline of the manual's contents by subject. Also consider the format; a modular structure is recommended as it allows for frequent changes to specific topics without having to rewrite and reissue an entire manual.

Continuing on, gather all existing manuals, memos, records, maps, and other documents relevant to your snow and ice control program. This should also include any general policies on personnel and procurement of the agency. Organize by subject for easy reference.

Search other sources for ideas and information. The following are quite useful:

  • "Written Snow and Ice Control Plans are Essential for Winter Maintenance Agencies," Duane E. Amsler, Sr., P.E., included in this winter maintenance issue on page 36.
  • Snow Fighters' Handbook, Salt Institute
  • Guide for Snow and Ice Control, American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials
  • Winter Highway Operations, National Cooperative Highway Research Program Synthesis 344
  • The Basics of Snow and Ice Control, APWA
  • Manual of Practice for an Effective Anti-Icing Program, Federal Highway Administration
  • "Snow Removal Techniques" video through APWA
  • "Winter Roads, Effective Use of Chemicals and Abrasives for Winter Road Maintenance" video from APWA
  • "Snow Removal in Safety" video from APWA
  • Transportation Research Board Winter Maintenance Committee website
  • AASHTO website
  • Snow-Ice List web-based discussion, University of Iowa
  • Operations infoNOW discussion group, APWA website
  • State LTAP centers
  • Other agencies (state and local websites)
  • APWA Reporter annual winter maintenance issue
  • Clear Roads website
  • Aurora program website
  • "Winter Road Maintenance" University of Wisconsin-Madison extension course

Cite the source for certain technical information; that will be useful for later revisions and also for liability defense. Review the compiled information and determine what is redundant, irrelevant, obsolete or, in some instances, even contradictory. Set aside what won't be used but be careful not to dispose of certain records that need to be kept for historical or legal reasons. Place other documents that need to be updated or revised in a different grouping. Another grouping will contain notes and related reference material for new sections.

Building the manual by modules
The following is one example of a structured format. Due to limitations of article length, only the basic elements are mentioned.

Foundation Section

Official Basis and Authorization

  • Cover page
  • Table of contents and Index
  • Introduction
  • Letter of support from Top Official
  • List of key personnel responsible for the winter weather operations
  • Policy Statement, including scope of responsibility and specific limitations or exclusions
  • Applicable statutes, ordinances, resolutions and regulations
  • Inter-Agency Agreements with other jurisdictions

Command and Control. In this section, the lines of responsibility and authority are established. Clearly identify by position who is in charge of conducting the program and other key roles. Designate alternates for the principals. An attached organization chart is helpful.

Define the communications systems; explain how information and instructions will be received, recorded and relayed to others. There may be different levels of communication; for example, only a small group may need weather and road condition reports, but the operational decisions based on that information need to be distributed to a larger audience. Where is "Command Central" the actual facility, where most communications, internal and external, will be handled?

Staffing. This establishes the complement by jobs and numbers of employees, contractors and auxiliary staff that will be needed. Each position should have defined duties and responsibilities. Rosters or lists of personnel and contractors assigned to shifts, facilities and vehicles should be noted as attachments.

Personnel Rules and Regulations. This part consolidates the pertinent rules and regulations, such as responsibility to report in adverse conditions, requesting leave, reporting absence or late arrival, overtime/comp time calculations, meal and rest breaks, etc. If special or modified rules apply during this season, they need to be explicitly stated to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.

Work Clothing and Protective Equipment. Describe the appropriate attire and required personal protective equipment. State what is issued to employees and the policy for replacement of unsuitable or lost items.

Training. Outline the training regimen for new and experienced employees. This may be detailed in an attachment and cover: equipment preparation and operation; route patterns; materials application and usage; safety procedures; communications; and accident reporting.


  • Facilities: Each site needs to be identified and particular note made as to whether special equipment or supplies are available. Some agencies in dense urban areas may have snow dump sites. Agencies that cover sparsely populated areas may have remote emergency shelters or stockpiles. Provide lists of locations for snow fences and road closure gates if applicable.

  • Equipment: Describe the type and number of vehicles and other equipment available for snow removal and ice control. A separate attachment can provide detailed lists.

  • Materials and Supplies: Indicate the various materials that will be used for anti-icing, deicing and temporary traction improvement. Explain in general terms the procurement, storage and handling of each type. List locations where anti-icing systems are installed on bridges or overpasses.

  • Weather Information: Identify the various sources such as private weather services, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Weather Channel and local broadcast TV and radio and even RWIS (Roadway Weather Information Systems) that the agency relies upon for determining actions.

  • Communications: Describe the regular system for receiving, recording, and relaying information via phone, two-way radio, pagers, e-mail and other methods such as AVL (Automatic Vehicle Location). Is some information displayed on websites? Are there certain protocol and terminology that call-takers, dispatchers, and truck operators are to follow?

Routes. Explain how streets and roads are classified as to priority for snow removal: for example, expressways, arterials, collectors, residential, commercial-industrial-institutional, school bus routes, etc. Agencies may have different criteria and nomenclature, so clearly state the definitions.

Describe the basis for determining routes: by districts or zones used for other purposes, such as street maintenance; by certain established boundaries such as major roads or topographical features; or by a certain length/time ratio?

Explain how chronic trouble spots are identified and handled. Also, indicate the general agreements for handling border streets and roadways within the jurisdiction that are handled by other agencies.

Small-scale maps of the routes or areas should be included as attachments.

Public Relations. Identify by position who is designated as the official spokesperson; this person will be the primary contact for the general media. Establish guidelines for others to follow who may be contacted directly by the media. If an agency has a website, explain what information will be posted and how often updated. Provide guidance for handling citizen complaints and requests.

Many agencies have a pre-season public awareness program; if so, describe the format and schedule.

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Operations Section

Service Levels. Describe the usual method and manner of treatment and expected condition of street and road system at certain points for various types of winter weather events. It is best to start with a "normal" or typical storm for the area. It is recommended that similar levels of service be developed for each priority classification and for storms of different intensity or magnitude. For example, fighting a severe blizzard is far different than dealing with a light snowfall. Also, state if levels of service will be modified according to TOD (time of day) or DOW (day of week) or some other factors; for instance, special events or major holidays.

It is important to reiterate disclaimers, exceptions and other statements that minimize liability risk and preempt undue criticism. As an example: "It should be noted that despite best planning and execution, unusually severe conditions and/or unforeseen shortages of materials, equipment and personnel may require operations to be substantially curtailed or possibly temporarily halted."

Pre-Storm. Detail the steps taken to prepare for an imminent storm. State what information is needed/issued. How and when will personnel and others be notified? Explain what measures, such as pre-treatment, are implemented and when. Outline equipment and materials preparation.

Progress During Storm. Explain the decision process to activate operations. Are there guidelines or matrices to follow? How is tactical information communicated to personnel, the public and other agencies?

Describe typical plowing and material spreading methods and techniques for particularly difficult locations such as bridges, cul-de-sacs, dead-ends, traffic calming devices and large intersections. Describe how and when to "bench" excess snow. Explain the processes for hauling snow or using high-capacity melters in dense urban areas.

Describe how requests from citizens and other departments are handled. Is there a separate protocol for emergency situations?

Post-Storm. Define when operations cease or are sharply reduced at the end of a winter weather event. Indicate if there is a final check of all or part of the routes. Describe the "shut-down" process when the trucks and other equipment return. How are problems handled after the main operation has ceased?

Post-Season to Pre-Season Activities. Include what activities, such as equipment service and repair, materials restocking, facilities cleaning, training program revisions, and route changes occur during the spring and summer. The planning for the next season starts when the current season ends.

Review sessions should be conducted with key personnel to identify problems and formulate improvements. A full-year schedule detailing tasks and due dates should be included as an attachment.

Attachments Section

This should include: copies of relevant statutes, ordinances and regulations; annual planning calendar; jurisdictional route maps; street or road indexes; rosters with assignments; personnel contact lists; contractor and supplier contact lists; vehicle and equipment tables; material application and calibration charts; radio channels and codes or terminology; vehicle inspection checklists; dispatch record forms; operator material usage and route completion forms; storm summary report forms; etc.

Wrapping Up
Once the manual is in final draft form, it should be carefully reviewed to make sure that all important elements are sufficiently covered. The most important aspect is that it be complete, readable and readily available. Using a modular approach allows the agency to issue certain sections to specific groups. For instance, key managers and supervisors need the entire manual but a truck operator only needs those sections pertinent to his role.

A comprehensive, clear and current manual is the foundation for a highly effective operation and can be a template for other programs. Finally, it can assist the agency in securing additional resources, provide a sound defense against claims and complaints, and improve public awareness and appreciation.

To learn more, APWA will present a Click, Listen & Learn webcast with Dave Bergner and Duane Amsler on October 18, 2007. Or, view the handouts from their presentations ("By the Book: Developing a Winter Weather Operations Manual" and "A Written Snow and Ice Control Plan That Works for You!") at the 2007 North American Snow Conference online at the APWA website. You can also contact Dave Bergner at (913) 327-6661 or