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Before a snowflake falls, officials are meeting to make some tough decisions

Juliette Kayyem: The aim is to protect public safety without bringing everyday life to a halt unnecessarily

Editor’s Note: Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst, is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Homeland Security department and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

Forecasters are anticipating a major storm this week in the Northeast, and many schools are likely to be closed. And, if you are a parent like me, you have got to be thinking: Why? Of course, we all love our children and want to protect them, but why are certain storms viewed as severe enough to keep them home and others not?

The gap between a kid’s giddiness about possibly being home this coming Tuesday and a parent’s anxiousness that the kids, yes, will be home can be measured in years.

Juliette Kayyem
Juliette Kayyem

So it might be worth knowing: How is a snow day called?

Having been, literally, at the center of the storm as a state homeland security adviser gives me a keen sense of what is going on in various state emergency management agencies right now and might help explain some of the challenges facing first responders.

Full disclosure: Calling a snow day is an art, not a science. Those on the outside who curse when a snow day is declared as the skies fail to deliver – or, alternatively, those who curse a five-hour delay in traffic when stuck in a storm – should recognize that weather prediction isn’t perfectly exact.

Public safety leaders assess the severity and, as importantly, the timing of the storm; an overnight storm whose intensity comes during commuter hours is different than a late night one that gives ample time for snow plows to clear streets by dawn. The National Weather Service, with any impending storm, gives regular updates by conference call to local and state first responders, but even they are assessing rapid changes in air, wind and precipitation that can’t possibly predict with perfect accuracy what the impact will be on ground.

With news of any impending storm, in any given state or urban emergency management agency, different disciplines and levels of government convene to assess this ultimate question: What about the children?

In most states, the decision to close a school district will be made by the local jurisdiction but will inevitably be guided by a state’s determination of whether state offices are closed. The state can rarely force a district to close its schools, but it can make a strong recommendation in light of the superior knowledge the state likely possesses about whatever event is about to unfold.

The decision to close schools by any district, or a similar decision by a state to prohibit all travel or nonessential employees from showing to work, is never taken lightly.

Each inevitably results in a trickle down impact: employees can’t show up to work because their kids are home; businesses can’t perform normal duties; appointments are canceled; events are postponed and so on.

These are judgment calls made by a mayor or governor, supported by advisers from various fields who serve to protect the most number of people without unnecessarily crying wolf.

I remember one time, early on in my state service, when we called an early release day for employees believing that a massive storm was arriving just as rush hour was to begin. By 3 p.m., the skies were as blue as the ocean. By 4 p.m., the NWS’ dire warnings were beginning to sound upbeat. “We dodged a bullet,” one of the meterologists said with glee at 5 p.m. Knowing the media and public wrath we were about to face for our well-meaning miscalculation, I wasn’t so sure I didn’t want some sign of a bullet.

But the decision to call some kind of emergency is just the beginning of the process. As state and local authorities make the call that the severity of the storm should result in various closures, an incident command system is established at a city or state’s emergency management agency to assure that transportation, electricity, public health and National Guard assets are ready.

Most likely, this weekend, these different state and local agencies have already met to ensure that the basics (salt, for example) and the less discussed needs (pet shelters, for example) are ready. A formal system of communication is established through well-utilized databases so that the lead incident commander – more likely than not, the locality’s emergency manager – will be able to process facts and deploy resources as necessary.

Private citizens who assist in snow pickup are given notification to be ready. The federal government – mostly FEMA, but it can include Defense Department resources – is also available to assist should the need arise, especially if there are long blackouts because of electricity lines going down.

So much activity, and there isn’t even a snowflake in the sky. But that’s how it is done. Incident commands, assets predeployed and ready, weather assessments that change hourly, and then, ultimately, the decision that the kids will be home. Sometimes it’s obvious; sometimes, it’s just a calculated guess.

I know how to have a perfectly safe Super Bowl – don’t have a Super Bowl. Because the reality is that perfect security is simply not attainable. But refusing to hold major sporting events is not – nor should it be – an option. So what we should instead be aiming for is perfect planning – something often misunderstood and overlooked by the public.

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