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Sheriff's spokesman: Driving under Level 3 is between you and your boss

Cary Ashby • Feb 5, 2014 at 9:41 PM

Imagine being home and you're ready to work.

And then the Huron County Sheriff's Office issues a Level 3 weather emergency.

That means the roads are treacherous and only vehicles for "emergency facility personnel" should be on the road. Those include physicians, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, physician's assistants, health-care workers, clerical staffs and any individual who is a security officer performing security services in an emergency facility.

Twice in January, Huron County Sheriff Dane Howard issued a Level 3.

But, despite the dangerous driving conditions, you're supposed to go to work -- that's the dilemma David A. Piontkowski's mother faced recently.

"Huron County was at a Level 3 for the better part of the day. If I am not mistaken, a Level 3 dictates emergency traffic only. Citizens are subject to a fine if caught driving during said conditions," Piontkowski told the Reflector.

The driver of a vehicle found on the roadways during a Level 3 could be charged with "misconduct at emergency."

"With this being said, my mother was forced to call off from her job. Following the law, she stayed home. Present day, her employer penalized her for calling off," Piontkowski said.

"When did work take top billing over the law? It is a union shop, but the fact that a grievance has to be placed is ridiculous. Is the dollar more important than life? I will let you decide that one," he said.

Chief Deputy Ted Patrick offered an explanation Thursday for what people should do when they're supposed to drive to work while a Level 3 is in effect.

"We want people to contact their employer," Patrick said.

When it comes to reporting to work, "that's between them and their employer," he said. "The employee needs to contact their employer and find out about the ramifications of not reporting (to work)."

The sheriff's spokesman stressed that issuing a Level 3 is about keeping Huron County residents safe.

"On a Level 3, we want them to get off the road ... and not getting stranded," he said. "The roads are really treacherous and (people) shouldn't be out on the road.

"We're not actively looking for people who are driving under Level 3. On the other hand, if they go in a ditch or are in an accident and they're at fault, they will get cited," he said.

Drivers, in those circumstances, could be charged with "failure to control" or "failure to maintain assured clear distance."

Since taking office in 2009, Howard has issued a Level 3 weather emergency only twice. Both of those incidents happened within weeks of each other -- Jan. 6 and again Jan. 25.

The first Level 3 was issued starting at noon Jan. 6.

Howard, at the time, said it was "the prudent thing to do," given the hazardous weather and road conditions. By issuing it at noon, the sheriff said it gave time for residents to travel home safely before dark.

The Level 3 on Jan. 6 wasn't due to snow -- it was the temperature and the accompanying danger.

"The temperatures being displayed are an extreme hazard to our citizens and emergency services personnel," Howard said at the time.

Wind gusts reached about 40 mph. With the wind chill, the temperature was as low as 40 below zero.

"It wasn't so much about the snow as it was about someone being out when they didn't need to be out driving, their vehicle breaking down and being separated from their vehicle," Patrick said.

The National Weather Service advised the sheriff's office that in those temperatures, someone who was exposed to the elements could get frostbite in 10 minutes.

"That was a major concern," Patrick said.

On Jan. 25, there were high snow drifts on Old State and Boughtonville roads. Ohio 162 was drifted completely shut until crews from the Ohio Department of Transportation plowed the road.

Before issuing a Level 3, the sheriff's office gets feedback from the ODOT and Huron County Highway Department.

"But ultimately, it's up to the sheriff's office," Patrick said.

"For us to issue a Level 3 is a rare instance. But this has been a rare winter," he added.

"Hopefully we won't have to do it again. We're going to do what's in the best interest of our citizens. ... We will do what we need to do to keep our citizens safe," Patrick said.

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