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Area sheriffs disagree on weather emergency levels

Clark and Champaign use declarations, but others say they aren’t needed.

County sheriffs across the area have exercised their power to issue weather emergencies many times already this winter, and below-zero temperatures the next two days plus snow by week’s end mean more warnings might be on the way.

Not all Ohio sheriffs agree on the practice, however, and some residents wonder what exactly it means for them when a Level 1, 2 or 3 emergency is announced.

“The levels are telling people that the roads are hazardous,” Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said. “We’re asking people, if you don’t have to be out, then don’t drive and let the snow plows do their job.”

Kelly issued a Level 2 emergency on Saturday, marking the first time in 2014 his county had been to that point.

Clark County was under a Level 1 alert Monday because of blowing and drifting in the county.

Temperatures are expected to hit -4 today, with wind chills as low as -35 tonight. A wind chill warning is in effect through 10 a.m. Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.

Level 1 means roadways are hazardous and caution should be used when driving. Level 2 warns of extremely hazardous roads, urging only necessary trips be made and that employees should contact their employers to see if they should report to work. Level 3, the most severe distinction, mandates all roads be closed to non-emergency traffic.

“A Level 3 basically shuts your county down,” Kelly said, adding that drivers can be cited if they don’t follow the declaration. The last time Clark County was under a Level 3 snow emergency was December 2004, according to the Clark County Emergency Management Agency.

The practice of issuing snow emergencies is controversial to some sheriffs. Neither Auglaize nor Shelby counties issue levels during inclement weather, instead relying on their residents to make the right choice.

“I believe citizens are smart enough to know whether they should go outside,” Shelby County Sheriff John Lenhart said in a phone interview.

Officials with the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association couldn’t give an exact number but estimated there are about six counties in Ohio that don’t put out level-based warnings.

Auglaize County Sheriff Allen Solomon said he doesn’t want drivers to worry about being arrested for commuting on the roads around their homes. He also said it put a strain on his employees.

“We found that it tied up our dispatchers, answering questions about snow levels during an emergency situation,” Solomon said.

Soloman added that he has fielded a number of complaints from citizens over the lack of a level system, while Lenhart said he hasn’t heard a peep.

For counties that declare snow emergencies, the prospect is taken seriously.

“When we make a declaration of a snow emergency, we’ve talked to a lot of people,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of thought that goes into (it).”

The list of decision makers is similar across most counties.

“What I do is contact the supervisor of the police patrol division,” Logan County Sheriff Andrew Smith said. “Also, county engineers, township trustees and city street departments.”

Smith said if conditions are bad enough, the Ohio Department of Transportation is also consulted.

Not all Springfield residents who were asked said they paid attention to the levels.

“I watch them because it does make a difference,” Diane Little said. “Although I have to admit that I went out Sunday for a short trip, with the Level 2.”

Meanwhile, Jeff Fletcher said he couldn’t imagine missing a day of work due to snowy roads. “If you have to go out there and get to work, I guess you’re going to have to do it,” Fletcher said.

Kelly said that for a brief time in his 28-year career he did away with snow emergencies but rethought his position after many people requested he write them letters to excuse them from work. His colleagues in Auglaize and Shelby counties are sticking to their plan.

“If it works for them, that’s fine, but we don’t use them,” Solomon said.

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