While the leaves continue to fall and that Thanksgiving dinner settles in your stomach, an invisible army at the Hopkins institutions is preparing for battle. And like minutemen, they stand ready to jump into action when called upon.
But the enemy they face is not flesh and blood; it's the ice and snow.
For those in maintenance and groundskeeping, now is the time of the year when preparations are being made to deal with the threat of winter storms. That means plows are being brought out, inventories checked, and contingency plans for that first snow storm readied for implementation.
William "Biff" Brown, grounds manager at Homewood, says that although his crew is still dealing with the current season's offerings, that first winter storm is certainly in the back of his mind.
"Right now we are still heavily involved with leaf removal, but as soon as we get that done we will set up for the snow," says Brown, now in his 15th year at Hopkins. "Currently we are inspecting the equipment, and next week we will start putting the snow removal equipment together."
Yet, Brown quickly adds, if a storm were to hit right now, "we would still be able to act. All the stuff is lined up. Within an hour we would get some plows on the road."
To combat the winter elements, Brown has an assortment of artillery from which to choose, including five four-wheel-drive trucks outfitted with plows, five tractors with plows, several hand-held salt spreaders and one truck equipped with a spreader for the nearly eight tons of ice-removing material and the 20-ton pile of sand stored on campus. In the event of a freezing rainstorm, Brown says his crew can cover the campus in salt and sand within just a couple of hours.
In order to do this, Brown has a crew of 14 that is on 24-hour call in the event of a storm. In the case of a heavy snowstorm, Brown has even more people he can count on.
"When needed, I can call on housekeeping and some of the other shops to borrow some manpower. Generally we don't need to use them," says Brown, whose base of operations is a garage on Remington Avenue behind the Johns Hopkins Health System buildings, "but we had one huge snowstorm a couple of years ago where we had to use everybody we could find."
The storm Brown mentions was back in 1996, when his crew and volunteers had to stay fours days straight on campus to clear the snow, working around the clock in shifts.
In a similar system, the Applied Physics Laboratory also has a volunteer snow crew on standby.
Glenn Carey, whose full-time position at APL is facilities projects manager, serves as APL's snow emergency coordinator. For Carey, the winter means staying on top of weather reports.
Carey works closely with Glenn Bailey, operations supervisor of automotive maintenance, who organizes the 50 or so staff and volunteers who clear the snow and spread the salt to keep pathways clear. Carey says that many ongoing research projects are being conducted inside the facility, and it's vital that all necessary personnel can get in and out of the buildings.
"We are tracking weather reports to see what the trend is going to be. If [snow is predicted and] that means coming in at 4 a.m., we do it," Carey says.
If the snow were to continue for more than one day, Carey and the snow crew are also prepared to stick it out to ensure that the 13 staff and two visitor parking lots are cleared and that there is access to all the buildings.
"We have a dormitory set up with sleeping quarters," says Carey, in reference to a room filled with beds and partitions so that the snow removal crew can stay on site. "We are planning for the worst event."
Meanwhile, in East Baltimore, Robert Diblasio is making a list and checking it twice.
Diblasio, director of maintenance and operations for the School of Medicine, is a veteran of 12 winters at Hopkins and has the preparation down to a science.
At the top of his checklist is making sure that all equipment--snow blowers, spreaders, shovels and plows--is ready for the snow. This involves testing the equipment and simulating its usage.
Diblasio's next order of business is to make sure he has enough inventory to get through the winter, which means determining where he can get more materials if something runs out.
For example, Diblasio points how the 1996 storms forced the closing of many local services, such as gas stations.
"Snow plows aren't very useful without gas," Diblasio says. "So we always check with area stations to make sure fuel will be available."
Diblasio is also responsible for manning the command post in the basement of the Wood Basic Science Building in the event of a storm. Located there is the campus's 24-hour customer service line where a volunteer gives staff, faculty and students up-to-the-minute weather reports and status as to the access to all the medical buildings. It's also from the basement that Diblasio's' support staff can coordinate the snow removal in the schools of Medicine and Nursing and stay in contact with the grounds crew at the School of Public Health and at the hospital. "We each have our own territory, but in a pinch, we help each other out," he says.
Diblasio says he normally relies just on his maintenance crew to deal with snow removal. But, like the other institutions, he also has reserves, such as housekeepers and contractors, to call upon.
"We wait for the heavy snow to call upon them; but when it comes, the customer service people get right on the phone to our volunteers and say, 'It's showtime,' " Diblasio says.
If need be, the volunteers will be picked up at their homes and brought to campus. He also has instituted a buddy system so that snow removal volunteers can drive in together.
"We don't want anybody out there alone in a big snowstorm," Diblasio says.
As for being called out in the middle of night or during dinner to help clear the snow, most members of the emergency crews agree they prefer it that way.
"A mid-morning snow is the hardest to deal with. The campus is full, and it's almost impossible to clear the lots," Brown says. "I like to see storms come in the middle of the night. That way we can be here without the student and staff population and have it clear by morning."
The maintenance crews at all the campuses also understand that Hopkins institutions have a reputation for not closing. According to Diblasio, that is a testament to the diligent work put in by all the staff and volunteers.
"I think some people here think it's magic that the snow goes away in the middle of the night."