Snowy Days: What it Takes to Clear Penn State of Snow

OPP crew member drives a snow brush to clear a sidewalk.
Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Sustaining a campus as large as Penn State’s takes a lot of effort -- especially during Pennsylvania’s snowy winters. In University Park alone, there are 35 miles of road, 77 miles of sidewalk and upwards of 14,000 parking spaces that have to be maintained. There are also more than 950 buildings with more than 11,000 doorways and countless stairs that must be cleared when wintry weather makes an appearance.

Snow Marshal Ryan McCaughey has the huge responsibility of coordinating OPP’s response to snow and other winter weather. As manager of Grounds & Equipment, which is part of OPP’s Buildings & Grounds division, he is in charge of maintaining the landscape at Penn State. When the forecast calls for snow, McCaughey, who routinely monitors the weather, gets the ball rolling with meetings with various groups within and outside of OPP. In addition to meeting with the Landscape supervisors (who are in charge of clearing the walkways on campus), the Labor Crew (who are responsible for the roads and parking lots), Custodial Operations and Utilities to manage OPP’s responsibilities, he also communicates and coordinates with Transportation Services, Police & Public Safety, Housing & Food Services and administrators and leadership across the University.

When it comes to tackling the snow on campus, it’s not so easy to just go by the book -- because according to McCaughey, the snow manual is a binder that is several inches thick. In addition, there is also not much that can be done to plan for a quick moving snow squall or freezing rain. Even with the best technology, the weather can often be unpredictable. Regardless, cancelling classes at University Park is usually a last resort. The University never truly shuts down as there are more than 14,000 students who reside on campus that need meals and warm lodging, in addition to research projects and livestock that cannot be forgotten. Students are usually troopers when it comes to the snow, but one of the biggest challenges includes getting the parking lots cleared for all of the commuters, faculty, staff and students alike.

When a big snow event is predicted, the crew always likes to be prepared. For example, if events are scheduled  -- like THON or a basketball game -- Buildings & Grounds plans ahead to have crew members on site to address any emergency snow issues. If there is a chance of a snow squall, McCaughey will schedule for at least 10 people to act as first responders. When it comes to a big event like THON, he arranges for at least four more people to cover just the Bryce Jordan Center.

When a snowstorm occurs in the evening or overnight, crew members typically aim to have pathways cleared by 7 a.m. to be ready for the work day. If the snow continues to fall, crew members are often asked to stay until campus is cleaned up. Regardless, the safety of everyone is the first priority.

The work doesn’t end once the snow is cleared. After the snow melts, a host of other issues often arises. Snow plows sometimes accidentally dig into the landscape, which McCaughey’s department repairs during the spring. Additionally, the edges of the sidewalks often get damaged simply because they are always exposed and wet. Salt can also build up in sidewalk cracks, which can damage the sidewalks further and harm the grass. In order to prevent this and help protect the local environment, crew members try to minimize the amount of salt and Ice Melt used. “Even though it may look very blue in color when you see it on the ground, we do try to use the minimal amount possible to get the job done right,” said McCaughey.

While most of Penn State’s winter weather often comes later in the season, sometimes a surprise storm shows up in the fall in October and November. If a big snowfall happens before a football game, the cleanup of Beaver Stadium adds a whole other dimension to snow removal Crew members have to clean up the entirety of the stadium, all 107,000 seats, while also maintaining the rest of the campus. If the snowfall occurs early in the week, then OPP will team up with Intercollegiate Athletics (ICA) to get the stadium in shape for game day.

However, if a big snowfall occurs on Friday or Saturday, there is not much crews can do on such short notice except to clear the area around Beaver Stadium and prohibit parking on the grass. If a surprise snow squall pops up on game day, then the ICA crew keeps has to keep the field covered for as long as possible prior to the game.

In the student section, the snow has to be completely removed for safety reasons, including preventing students from slipping on the metal bleachers or starting snowball fights. In the rest of the stadium, the snow gets knocked from the bleachers and pushed underneath. The entire concourse also has to be cleared and the snow must be removed from the field out the south end of the stadium.

McCaughey recalled a big snowfall two years ago right before Thanksgiving: “We came in on Friday after the holiday to start working on the stadium, and at that point it was all iced over. Since snow was also blanketing the campus, we couldn’t even get all hands on deck at the stadium.” It took more than 200 people to clean up the stadium prior to the game.

According to McCaughey, the process looks very similar to garbage cleanup after a home game. “Not only did it take all day, it also sounded incredibly loud because everyone was chopping away at the ice. The music was on and it sounded like there were 30,000 people in the stadium -- you couldn’t hear someone two feet away from you,” he said.

One of the most difficult parts of the job, said McCaughey, is trying to clear the way when students are out and about. During a class change, it can be hard to run big equipment, even if we are in the middle of a big snow squall. “It’s kind of like trying to wash the HUB floor at lunch time. Everyone on campus needs to keep going on with their business and that doesn’t stop just because of some snow.”

One of the perks of the job, however, is getting to see the sun rise over the campus when the campus is blanketed with undisturbed snow. Often times when the crew comes in to work after a snowfall, the snow is stuck in the trees and campus is very peaceful. McCaughey said, “Campus at 3 a.m. is very interesting -- it’s dark and everything is white and it’s a lot brighter than you might think. Everything looks nice. We can watch the sun come up in between Mount Nittany and Beaver Stadium and see campus in the morning before anyone touches the snow.”

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