Getting the information you need to win the winter intelligence battle.

Soldiers will tell you that there are two keys to winning battles: logistics and intelligence. If you know where the enemy is going to be and what they are planning, and you have the resources in place to stop them, then youíll win. It sounds deceptively simple, but, of course, it isnít quite that straightforward.

So, too, in snow and ice control. If we knew where and when the snow was going to fall, what form it was going to fall in (light snow, freezing rain, heavy snow) and how much traffic we were going to have to deal with while we were trying to clear the snow, life would be a whole lot simpler. Or at any rate, weíd have fewer of those gut clenching ďuh-ohĒ moments (although most of us probably say something a bit more earthy than uh-oh!) to deal with.

The purpose of this article is to give you some tips on how to win the winter intelligence battle. By improving the quality and value of the information you have available to you when you are dealing with winter weather, you can make much better use of the limited resources you have available to you. And if your resources arenít limited, you are a very lucky person!

Tactics and Strategy

What sort of information are we talking about here? Well, to continue the military metaphor, there is strategic information and tactical information. Strategic information is the kind you need before the winter starts. It helps you to plan all your winter activities, ensures that you have appropriate materials, for example, in the right places and in the correct amounts. Tactical information is what you need in the middle of a storm. How heavily is it snowing? When will it stop? Where have all my snowplows gone? That sort of thing!

The other critical thing about information is the quality of that information, and related to this is the value of the information to your decision making process. I tend to think of information as being at one of four different levels, which I have labeled data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Each of these terms has specific meanings for me. Data is the rawest form of information. Itís the signal from a sensor for example. Often it is in binary form even, or otherwise encoded so that it has to be interpreted. There are lots of data out there that relate to winter maintenance. In fact, there is way too much data to be useful. You have to be choosy about the information you are going to use.

So if data is a signal, whatís information? Well, information, in its raw form, is something like the road surface temperature. It is a single point of knowledge that, while true, doesnít really begin to tell you very much. Information tells you that the road surface temperature is 30ļ Fóso what? We can at least tell what the information means, but it doesnít give us much context. That comes at the next level of information: knowledge.

Knowledge comes when you have the information and you know what it means. It is not enough to know that the road surface temperature is 30ļ F; we also have to know the trend of the temperature: Is it cooling down or warming up? Is there precipitation present or coming soon? How much chemical is on the road right now, and when can we add more if we need to? All of these things make that piece of information more valuable to us and help to turn it into knowledge. But even that is not the final step. We have to decide what to do with our knowledge. Doing that right takes wisdom.

Again, in this narrow context, wisdom is taking the knowledge that you have and using it to drive your operational decisions. It is the ultimate goal of all the data, information and knowledge that you collect. By that I mean that if the data, information and knowledge do not help you make your operational decisions, then their value to you is very little.

This is a fairly important issue. All the sensors, weather reports, truck data and other information out there today is only useful if it helps you make decisions. Itís worth considering conducting an information audit to see what decisions you currently make in your winter operations, and what information helps you to make those decisions well. We are all bombarded with information these days, and while you may not be able to get rid of all the information, you can at least concentrate on what will help you the most.

Information auditing

Letís take a typical and pertinent example: the weather. There are many, many weather forecasts available to you. There are typical media forecasts: the TV and radio, including The Weather Channel. There are special forecast providers, contract forecasters, if you will. There are folks who live ďup stormĒ from youóin the path of any likely storm to hit your area of responsibility. There are RWIS (Road Weather Information System) sites, some of which are likely to be a few miles away from you and the information from which may be accessible to you. All of these are available to you, and if you tried to keep track of them all, youíd spend so much time doing so that you would never plow any snow at all. What should you concentrate on?

You need to focus on what should be driving your decisions. I know radar pictures look pretty neat, but they are not necessarily what you need to know. Typically, in winter storms you need to know five things:

  1. When will the storm start?
  2. What type(s) of precipitation will there be?
  3. How much total precipitation can I expect?
  4. How long will it last?
  5. What is the surface temperature?

To these you might add what will the wind speed be after the storm (important in the Midwest, for example), and a few other questions. But for now, letís see from where we might get that information, and also why it is important.

Information gathering

Letís start with road surface temperature. That is critically important in winter maintenance, much more so than air temperature, which basically does not matter at all. Why does the surface temperature matter? Because it tells you whether the snow will stick to the pavement or melt there. If the pavement is warm (often the case early in the season in northern states, and possibly all through winter in more southern states) then your recommended action is to do nothing. If itís snowing heavily, you might need to plow, but basically, the snow will not stick to the pavement, so you donít need any chemicals or abrasives. That can save you real money.

Just so you know, you donít get pavement temperature from TV and radio forecastsónot even The Weather Channel. Thatís because the National Weather Service forecasting models (which are used by all the media) do not predict surface temperature. The best way to get surface temperature is to access RWIS sites. A good second choice is to get vehicle-mounted pavement-temperature sensors, which are easily available and provide great operational information. Many state departments of transportation (DOTs) have them on most, if not all, of their plow trucks.

Without covering all the other ways you can collect critical weather information, the point Iím trying to make is that it is easy to get swamped with a whole bunch of information that does you no good at all. What that means is you are much more likely when you are swamped to overlook the critical information that you really do need to know.

I havenít dealt with how you decide what you do need to know. That is a fairly specific issue and will relate to your own particular circumstances. I can suggest two ways that might help you figure that out. First, an awful lot of snow and ice professionals subscribe to the snow and ice e-mail list-serve. Once you are subscribed, you can ask a snow-and-ice-related question and you almost always get a pertinent answer within 24 hours from someone in circumstances very similar to your own. You can subscribe to the list-serve at, and can unsubscribe at exactly the same site if you find it doesnít help. A second valuable resource is, of course, the Internet. There are lots of sites out there that relate to snow and ice control. One that has links to many of them and contains useful information, specifications and documents is maintained by the Winter Maintenance Policy Coordinating Committee of AASHTO (The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials): Between these two resources, you should be able to decide what you need to know. And that should help you do your winter maintenance work more effectively.

Wilfrid A. Nixon, Ph. D., P.E., is professor of civil engineering at the University of Iowa (Iowa City, Iowa) and president of Asset Insight Technologies, LLC.

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