Preparedness

Police, Emergency Personnel Brave Sub-Zero Temps

Police, fire, road commission and ambulance personnel, though, braved the below-zero temperatures and frostbite conditions for the second consecutive day to keep residents safe Wednesday, Jan. 30.

by Audra Gamble and Audra Gamble, Holland Sentinel, Mich. / January 31, 2019
As freezing rain falls, a Vernon Conn., police officer looks at the snapped pole and the wires down brought down by the heavy accumulation of ice on Route 30 in Vernon, Conn., that caused the closing of the busy thoroughfare during the storm, Sunday, January 20, 2019. AP/Jim Michaud

(TNS) - On the coldest day in Michigan since 1994, many Ottawa and Allegan County residents stayed home on a continuing snow day streak.

Police, fire, road commission and ambulance personnel, though, braved the below-zero temperatures and frostbite conditions for the second consecutive day to keep residents safe Wednesday, Jan. 30.

After multiple-vehicle pileups closed I-196 in Zeeland, I-96 in Coopersville and Marne and M-40 in Allegan County on Tuesday, first responders continued to respond to crashes in whiteout conditions Wednesday.

"It's dangerous for us, EMS, fire services, wreckers and ambulances," said Allegan County Sheriff Frank Baker. "For everybody, it's dangerous."

The Ottawa County Sheriff's Office responded to 369 traffic-related calls Tuesday, about 150 calls more than an average winter day. Both the Allegan and Ottawa sheriff's offices have increased patrols on highways to accommodate the extra 911 calls.

Meanwhile, plow drivers in Ottawa County are working hard to clear the roadway in the midst of continuing snowfall. According to road commission communications administrator Alex Doty, 20 trucks are based in the North Holland garage and 66 trucks are used throughout the county during winter maintenance operations.

"Because it's so cold and there's a lot of snow and drifts, our guys have been running 12-hour days," Doty said. "They're coming in early, starting at 4 a.m. They leave around 5 p.m., and then the night crew comes in. All of our trucks are heated and have warm cabins, so they're protected from the elements and they all have heavy jackets and hats and gloves."

Allegan County plow drivers are working from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., but do not have an overnight crew.

So far, Ottawa County plow drivers have managed to avoid any serious collisions and no Ottawa County Sheriff's Office deputies have been injured. Baker said a couple of Michigan State Police cruisers were damaged while patrolling Tuesday.

"We did have one cruiser that was damaged in a crash on U.S. 131 last night," Baker said of his own deputies. "Whenever we see winter storms like this, people slide into us. We had one that slid off the road, too."

Neither of those deputies were injured. Blowing winds and drifting snow made for dicey conditions again Wednesday on M-40 between Hamilton and Holland. Alternate routes were unable to be cleared, preventing deputies from being able to close the road despite multiple slide-offs. Visibility in Ottawa County wasn't much better.

"So far, people have been keeping clear, which we can't stress enough," Doty said. "If you do have to travel, watch for our trucks and give them plenty of room to do what they need to do. They have limited visibility as it is."

Doty also advises residents to be patient.

"Right now, especially at this point in time, we're asking people to please stay home and stay off the roads," he said. "That makes our job a lot easier, especially with this reduced visibility and all the blowing snow, because that's what our drivers are seeing."

Several school districts have already called another snow day for Thursday, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the closing of state offices through Thursday due to the extreme cold. Ottawa County government buildings and courts will also still be closed Thursday.

Drivers should be aware that, under current conditions, salt doesn't have any effect on the roadway.

"If the temperature drops below 20 degrees — and today we're seeing the cold days we've seen in quite a long time — that salt won't work," Doty said. "So we use sand to provide traction and provide some grip. We're ready to deal with the winter and we have enough sand and salt to get us through, so that's not a concern. Right now, our concern is getting everybody plowed out and, hopefully, have this weather end."

Roads in Ottawa County may not be fully cleared until later this week.

"We haven't been able to make too much headway into the subdivisions," Doty said. "We've needed to focus on the main roads because they've been drifting over so much. We're asking people to be patient and understand that we're working the best we can to get through this. It'll just take some time because of the weather."

Firefighters have been responding to pileups, spending extended time in the cold to clear roadways of debris and jackknifed semi trucks.

Zeeland Township Fire Rescue Chief Phil Hunderman said his firefighters are "recovering" after responding to a 15-car pileup on I-196 Tuesday.

"We take all the precautions we can, but we're still on wheels just like everyone else's vehicle," Hunderman said. "We try to make sure we've got a full crew, and we don't take private vehicles. The roads are just as slippery for our trucks as anyone else's. We try to dress for the weather and we rotate people out. We're just taking it as it comes."

As temperatures rise, Hunderman expects to have an increased number of 911 calls for frozen and burst pipes over the next few days.

Local businesses are taking notice of responders on the streets. Many storefronts were closed on Wednesday, but Mug Shots Coffeehouse in Allegan was open from 7-11 a.m., serving free coffee to anyone whose employment brought them out in the cold — particularly law enforcement officers.

"My husband is a 26-year veteran of the sheriff's department," said owner Corrina Mendell. "So I'm well aware of what they have to go through when they're working the road. This is our way of giving back to the firefighters and policemen and plow drivers that have to be out there. I feel for them."

Mendell said turnout was decent but limited because responders are often stuck in their respective sections and unable to visit. To combat this problem, Mendell donated all leftover coffee and muffins for officers to bring back to their department.

"We want to give our thanks to everybody that's risking their lives to help," Mendell said. "This is the second or third time we've done this in seven years, and this is the worst in terms of consecutive days I can remember."

Mendell would like to remind the public that, under the circumstances, first responders are doing their best.

"Be safe and mindful of the men and women that are out there," she said. "I know people get impatient when they slide off and they have to wait. But they're doing the best they can, and they also have to drive in this weather and take care of the other people that are in need."

Baker seconded this, saying it may take a day or two for a deputy to respond to a non-emergency call in snowstorm conditions.

"It's a challenge for the deputies," he said. "We're fortunate that we have the support of the community and we're all just trying to get through this."

— Follow these reporters on Twitter @SentinelAudra and @BizHolland.

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