Brrrrr! Arctic blast can affect buses, buildings … and bodies


Photo: Lily Condron

A seemingly abandoned car has been sitting idle in the Athletic Parking Lot for weeks. Snowplow operators have had to work around the car as they try to get Fairmont’s lots ready for school.

By Emily Latham, Flyer Staff

[Story updated on 2/12/14 with more details on weather-related building problems.]

Sub-zero temperatures and relentless snow have made the winter of 2013-14 one to remember … or maybe one to forget.

The wintry blasts and calamity days have played havoc with academic planning, student focus and nearly everyone’s patience. But the severe winter weather also poses challenges to school buses and buildings – and real danger to exposed skin.

Tyler Alexander, South Unit Principal at Fairmont, says this winter has been particularly trying.

“It’s been very difficult,” he said, adding that he’s glad he’s not the one who has to decide whether or not to close due to weather. “The superintendent looks at a lot of factors. He speaks with our business director, who is in charge of making sure all of our parking lots and sidewalks are clear; he speaks with transportation because of bus safety; and he also speaks to other districts, seeing what they’re thinking. It’s important for us to educate our students, but it’s also important for us to keep our students safe.”

Buses and buildings

Ken Lackey, director of the Business Services Department for Kettering City Schools, says this winter’s below-zero temperatures were unexpected, but the district has weathered the storm pretty well.

“We’ve had hardly any problems with buses,” Lackey said. “On the first day after break, we had one bus that we couldn’t get started, so we used a spare. We had another bus without heat one day that we had to switch out. The buses all have diesel engines, so the engines are plugged in all night to keep them warm.”

In terms of facilities, Lackey says the district has had a few weather-related problems, most notably at Fairmont, where a fire suppression head froze and burst and some cooling coils ruptured.

“The fire suppression head that ruptured was in the trainer’s room within the athletic complex at Fairmont,” explained Phil Hacker, supervisor of Buildings and Grounds for the district. “The trainer, Robin Lensch, called Fairmont Head Custodian Brian Marker to make him aware that a leak had developed. Brian was able to contact the maintenance office, and we called on a fire suppression company to address the need. Some damage resulted but not as much as what would have been had the information not been passed on so quickly.”

Hacker said four cooling coils and a heating coil also ruptured at Fairmont, three in South Unit and two in West. “The West Unit has been repaired and the South Unit will be shortly,” he said. “The cooling coils will not be missed until this spring, and the heating coil, which is part of a unit ventilator, ruptured due to the water inside the coil freezing. ” 

Hacker said Fairmont and other buildings in the district actually weathered the severe winter very well. “We have not lost any time due to building related issues during the worst winter in 20 years,” he said.

Lackey also noted the extra burdens the snow has put on the district’s grounds staff and building custodians.

“During periods of snow, our grounds staff starts very early working to clear parking lots of snow and get them salted,” said Lackey. He says the staff usually starts about midnight clearing the lots.

Once the lots are cleared, it’s time for the custodial staff to get busy. “The building custodians come in early on bad weather days to clear snow from sidewalks and get them salted. They usually start at 5 or 5:30 in the morning to get the buildings ready,” Lackey said.

Marker, Fairmont’s head custodian, mentions other aspects of building upkeep. “We make sure we have fuel on hand for the snowblowers or snowplows and make sure we have salt on hand. In cold weather, we have to make sure there’s access to the buildings.”

Effects on skin

But despite all the maintenance crews’ hard work, parents and students have a responsibility, too. They must make sure to dress their children or themselves accordingly.

This winter has been one of worst on record in more than two decades, according to local meteorologists, and Lackey believes most students and parents are taking appropriate precautions. “We rely on our students and parents to make good decisions about dressing properly and taking precautions to make sure they are safe getting to and from school. The vast majority of students and parents do a great job in this regard,” he said.

Of course, teenagers can be a stubborn bunch when it comes to dressing for the weather. “I’m sure there have been some students who have not dressed properly for the weather,” Lackey admitted. And dressing to be cool, but not dressing for these recent frigid temperatures could cost you a finger or toe, according to local health experts.

“We operate three emergency departments here at the main campus, and at all three emergency centers, our doctors and nurses have seen cases of frostbite,” said Nancy Thickel, communications manager with Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton.

Thickel said most frostbite cases at MVH have involved workers who had to be out in the extreme elements, but in a few other cases, people have simply been outside too long and haven’t dressed properly. “Anecdotally, since this cold snap within the last 10 days or so, we’ve been getting two to three cases of frostbite a day at the main campus,” she said.

Dawn Bauereis, a registered nurse at CareCenter, says the best prevention from frostbite is to be prepared and dress properly for the weather. “Be sure your clothing provides protection for your head, ears, nose, hands and feet,” Bauereis said, explaining that those are the most common areas affected by frostbite. “Wear several layers of clothing rather than a single, thick layer. The best materials for layers provide good insulation and keep moisture away from the skin.”

Bauereis says frostbite can happen quickly, so it also needs to be treated quickly – but carefully. “Frostbite is, literally, frozen body tissue and it must be handled carefully to prevent permanent tissue damage,” she said. “First-degree frostbite can be treated at home by re-warming, but the re-warming process has to be done carefully.”

Bauereis explained how to begin treating frostbite. “First, the person needs to be brought indoors, and all wet clothing should be removed. Immerse the chilled body parts in warm water for 20 to 30 minutes until all sensation returns. Numb body parts won’t feel the heat and can be severely burned by water that is too hot, so use extreme caution,” she explained. “Don’t use heating pads, stoves, fireplaces or radiators to re-warm because the affected skin can be numb and easily burn.”

How do people know if they do have frostbite?

“In first-degree frostbite, the affected area of skin usually becomes white and feels numb or tingly, and sometimes the skin is red. It may also feel hard or stiff,” said Bauereis. “In second-degree frostbite, the affected skin is often red, or may become blue. It feels frozen and hard. There is also usually quite a lot of swelling of the affected area. Blisters filled with a clear or milky fluid appear on the skin.”

Miami Valley Hospital’s Thickel confirmed that this year’s severe winter weather has led to an uptick in frostbite cases.

“I’m sure we’re seeing more cases because we’ve had more severe temperatures here in Dayton, Ohio, than we’ve had last year,” she said. “One doctor was telling me yesterday that this is the coldest it’s been in his 35-year history at Miami Valley. I think it’s the combination of extremely cold temperatures and the number of days it has been cold that has caused us to have more people being treated with not only frostbite, but other weather-related injuries such as slipping on the ice.”