News & Politics

Let It Snow!

How does Office of Personnel Management staff decide whether the federal government should close because of snow?

For most of us, a snow day begins with a first glimpse out the window at a carpet of white. But for Office of Personnel Management staff, the process of deciding whether the federal government should close starts hours before most Washingtonians are awake. Here’s how they make the call.

As soon as a storm is forecast, an OPM “snow team” starts monitoring it from the agency’s 24-hour Situation Room. They update OPM directors with projected totals and timing.

3:00 am

A conference call led by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is scheduled whenever the National Weather Service forecasts more than one inch of snow accumulation or any amount of ice.

On the line are an OPM senior staffer and representatives from more than 100 agencies across the region. The National Weather Service and the OPM snow team give storm updates. Transportation departments from DC, Maryland, and Virginia assess road conditions, and Metro and Amtrak judge the state of rail and bus lines. Emergency-planning and law-enforcement agencies report traffic accidents. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and school districts announce their own closure decisions.

3:30 am

OPM conducts an internal call with senior officials and director John Berry to evaluate the storm by historical precedent. They consult an Excel spreadsheet documenting decades of snowstorms and OPM decisions.

Berry makes the final decision. Closing the government for one day can cost an estimated $77 million and affect 300,000 federal workers.

4:00 am

OPM staffers Get the word out through the agency’s Web site and call-in line. The Council of Governments informs the agencies on the initial conference call. The White House, Congress, and federal agencies are notified. The OPM Situation Room sends out a radio notification over the Washington Area Warning Alert System.

Illustrations by Chris Philpot.

This article appears in the January 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

Staff Writer

Michael J. Gaynor has written about fake Navy SEALs, a town without cell phones, his Russian spy landlord, and many more weird and fascinating stories for the Washingtonian. He lives in DC, where his landlord is no longer a Russian spy.