Sheriff explains snow emergencies

Nov. 24—JEFFERSON — Last week's level-three snow emergency may have been the first time some Ashtabula County residents have seen a snow emergency declared in the county.

An opinion from the Ohio Attorney General states that county sheriffs have the authority to close roads within their jurisdiction in the event of a snow emergency, in order to preserve the public peace.

Ashtabula County Sheriff William Niemi said he was awake early last Thursday morning, when the first major snowstorm of the year hit the county.

"I was up at 3:30, 4 o'clock in the morning, and it didn't look too bad here in Jefferson," Niemi said. "My phone starts blowing up, because [Interstate] 90, it was bad. We had accidents all over, semis jack-knifed, on Route 11, Route 90, 84. Conneaut was terrible.

"I have to make my decisions based on public safety as well. So I figured the safest way to do this is, I contacted EMA, put out a public notice that I'm going to declare a level three," he said. "The goal was to keep people safe, and keep traffic off the roadways during this this big storm, where we had accidents all over, so that plow trucks could do their job, get the streets cleaned up."

Niemi said the initial plan was to modify the order throughout the day, based on the situation at hand.

In addition to the snow, there were also power outages around the county.

"So I felt it was the right decision, the best decision to make at the time," Niemi said.

Niemi said he is very involved in the community, and he wants to continue to learn and make the best decisions possible.

According to the Ohio Committee For Sever Weather Awareness, there are three levels of snow emergency in Ohio. A level-one emergency means that roads are hazardous, with blowing and drifting snow and the potential for ice.

In a level-one snow emergency, drivers are encouraged to drive very cautiously.

A level-two emergency is more severe than a level one, with the potential for roads to be very icy, in addition to blowing and drifting snow.

Motorists are advised to only drive if necessary, and exercise extreme caution if they do.

In a level-three snow emergency, all roadways are closed to non-emergency personnel. No one should travel unless it is absolutely necessary, or there is an emergency. Anyone traveling the roads may be subject to arrest.

Niemi said his decision on whether or not to call a level-three snow emergency in the future will involve a number of factors.

"There's got to be contributing factors," Niemi said. "How the roadways are, what's going on, what time of the day it is, there's a lot of factors to consider.

"I would use a level three more discreetly, that won't be my first, go-to thing," he said.

During significant snow storms, motorists should exercise common sense, and give plow drivers time to do their jobs. Niemi said he is not going to declare a level-three snow emergency just for the sake of declaring it, and it should not be a habit.

"There's some sheriffs that don't do it, because of multiple reasons," Niemi said.

Lake County's Sheriff's Office does not use the system, he said.

Declaring the snow emergency was also a learning experience.

"It's never been done, so it points out where we could improve, as far as notification," Niemi said. "Some businesses never got notified of it."

Niemi recommended people sign up for Swift911, which can be done through the Ashtabula County Emergency Management Agency's page on the county's website, Announcements will also be made on the Sheriff's Office Facebook page.

"That was the good thing about it, because we learned from it," Niemi said.

He said he wants to be as transparent as possible, and make sure the community knows what is going on.

Niemi said some people were angry at him for declaring the snow emergency.

"You elected me to make these decisions, so I'm going to do the best job I can," he said.