By Matt Welsh
When winter weather looms over the forecast, the most influential members of the OU community gather to listen to Kevin Kloesel.
Kloesel 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. His annual vacation starts the Thursday before OU-Texas and ends that Sunday.
Kloesel, born and raised in Austin, has a deeply personal reason for the timing of his annual vacation.
“That week, that particular week in October, is very painful. I love this place. I love the job. I love the people. I love working with athletics,” Kloesel said with a deep sigh. “But I also worked in athletics at UT. I love the people. I still have friends there… My two lives are in these two places, and I love them both. It absolutely makes me sick to see the hatred and the venom.”
Kloesel dislikes the venom so much he plans his vacation destinations away from the rivalry.
“I will leave this place and get as far away as I can Thursday through Sunday of Texas – OU weekend,” Kloesel said.
The call to cancel classes, made by OU’s vice president of operations and president, is based on information provided by the Emergency Response Team, a group of senior campus leaders including Kloesel.
The decision to cancel classes is a part of the emergency operations plan, which features “annexes.”
“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 the weather event is projected to occur, he sends out a daily briefing with forecast updates.
Kloesel’s forecasting resources include public forecasts by the National Weather Service and private forecasting services purchased by the university. He can analyze this data at the National Weather Center, where he has an office, or at a workstation in a conference room in the Nuclear Engineering Laboratory on Asp Avenue. However, in case of inclement weather events during off-hours, he has similar resources at his home with backup power and internet for good measure.
Kloesel uses these tools to forecast the event’s effects 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 annual rallying cry to cancel classes every time the possibility of winter precipitation enters the forecast.
Bradon Christian, a senior at OU, said the call to cancel class is always a welcome decision.
“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 the most desired action in 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 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, with 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 electronically 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 is 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 at 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.”
The meeting to discuss canceling class tends to come after Norman Public Schools and Moore Public Schools release their decision, 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.
“What may impact the city of Norman from a Norman Public Schools standpoint may not directly impact us because the decisions are different,” Kloesel said.
Kloesel said public school districts often have buses running at 4 a.m. which is too early to make a decision the morning of the event. Students may have to stand at cold bus stops for prolonged periods, he added.
Though OU does not assess the same factors as public schools, Kloesel said the university does take into account their decision.
“We know that if Norman and Moore are closed, and on and on and on, well now we have families who have students that are going to be home,” Kloesel said. “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 whether we want our parents to stay home with their kids? Those kinds of things all go into that agonizing discussion.”
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.
“We try to (release the cancellation decision) before the 10 o’clock newscast. If we can get a closure decision into the 10 o’clock news cycle, that’s optimal,” Kloesel said. “Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t based upon how uncertain we are about the forecast.”
But if there is not enough information, the team will reconvene in the morning.
“We have the luxury of waiting because we have a different set of needs and different set of circumstances (than other institutions),” Kloesel said.
Once 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, which holds the details of every event on campus for the next several days.
After alerting the top two levels of the email tree, Kloesel utilizes 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, according to Kesha Keith, director of media relations.
As the system sends out notification, Kloesel also tweets additional information from the OU Emergency Preparedness Twitter account.
The phrase “the call” originates from this notification style of a pre-recorded phone call from the president of the university, most recently President Boren. However, those days of a pre-recorded message may be over.
In recent years, former President Gallogly did not record a message, and interim President 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.
However, some students still miss the recorded voice message, despite the time it adds 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 the scrutiny of school cancellations builds, Kloesel maintains the focus of the Emergency Response Team never waivers.
“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 perceived differently by others.
Christian’s reaction to hearing “the call”?
“Hell yeah… Hell yeah.”