During a public meeting last Wednesday, Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass announced significant changes to the Williams Motorcoach system and to the College’s severe weather response protocol, following frustration with the bus system’s operation during a severe snowstorm last December. Klass alerted students of alterations that aim to better equip senior staff, Campus Safety and Security (CSS) and the Williams Motorcoach to handle weather-related emergencies and to streamline communication between those involved in crisis management, both at the College and in the local area.
The changes, which Klass unveiled to trustees last month, come in response to issues with motorcoach trips during the snowstorm that hit the Berkshires on Dec. 1, the day before classes resumed following Thanksgiving break.
On the evening of Dec. 1, four buses from the Albany airport and New York City experienced significant delays after their vehicles got stuck in the snow on their way back to campus. Wade Tours, one of three bus companies that the motorcoach charters, sent backup buses to meet the passengers. All passengers eventually made it back to campus by the morning of Dec. 2, often after having switched between several alternate buses because of snow buildup on roadways.
Additional safety issues arose on a motorcoach that was scheduled to depart Albany at 6 p.m. These issues forced students to exit the bus through its emergency exit windows and wait on the side of the road for over an hour. Eventually, passengers walked to the nearest fire station in Pownal, Vt., to wait out the storm. In an email to student passengers the next day, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom referred to the incident as “frightening” and a “harrowing string of events.”
Klass identified two key issues that led to difficulties responding to the severe weather: miscommunication and insufficient preparation. An early-season storm of this severity is rare and unexpected, both Klass and CSS Director Dave Boyer emphasized. “It was very unique, and that’s why we weren’t anywhere near as ready as we should’ve been,” Klass said at the meeting last Wednesday. Boyer added that Williamstown is a particularly difficult place to predict storms, as there are no major weather centers in the area.
The College is now taking steps to improve its response to unforeseen storms. Last month, senior staff participated in a three-hour-long simulation of an extreme crisis, giving them the opportunity to refine methods of crisis management. In the aftermath of the Dec. 1 storm, the administration has communicated to Wade Tours that there will be careful attention paid to motorcoach operations in the future. “We are taking a lot of steps in the right direction,” said Klass. “Our bus vendors have a good sense [of that]. It’s a real partnership.”
Following the snowstorm, Klass said the College will be more careful in assessing whether or not to cancel future motorcoach bus trips in the event of severe weather. “We are going to be more proactive and engaged,” Klass said. “[The bus companies] know now that we are going to be more conservative.”
Because the College is almost entirely residential, classes are almost never unilaterally cancelled. Instead, administration leaves the question up to individual professors. Concerns over missing class the week before exams initially created a pressing need for some students on the buses to return to campus quickly. “We thought students would be mad because classes weren’t canceled, so they’d be losing something,” said current Executive Director of the Motorcoach Hailey Han ’22, who was on one of the buses herself.
Klass acknowledged that, given the extreme circumstances, cancelling classes may have been an option. “We should have noted that we had hundreds of students traveling [that day],” he said. “We were as much a commuter college as we were a residential one.”
By not cancelling classes, student conductor of the Albany bus Elliot Kim ’23 said, the College put students in a tough position. “Students literally risked their lives to get back to campus so that they could take classes,” Kim said. “We received a notice from Williams that professors would ‘understand’ if students did not attend class, but that simply didn’t mean anything because the professors would obviously keep moving on with course materials, piling stress and crazy workloads on students who could not make it to campus until later days.”
Klass acknowledged that the College will place greater weight on safety as the main priority in the future, even if it frustrates students. “We are expecting to get heat on that,” Klass said. “But if I’m going to get heat on one, it’s the one that is safe.”
One of the largest changes to the motorcoach will go into effect next fall, when the Office of Student Life will take over operations from Han. Currently, Han works with Assistant Director for Student Organizations and Club Sports Kris Hoey to run the program, which was originally started by students. “I think it is time that we take more direct control,” Klass said.
There will still be student involvement in the process, which Han stressed is needed to ensure that the motorcoach runs shuttles when and where students want to travel. “[Administration] can’t really reflect what the student demand is,” she said.
Klass identified miscommunication as one of the causes of the incident, citing issues in sharing information between those stuck on stopped buses and administrative offices on campus. Over the course of the evening, CSS’s two dispatchers received 700 calls, far more than they are equipped to process. In order to lessen the load on dispatchers, Boyer took some of the more pressing calls, which, according to Boyer, actually backfired. “The good intention of trying to lessen the load actually created an information void for dispatchers,” he said.
Although some motorcoach buses were relatively close to campus when they got stuck in large snow accumulations, CSS was unable to reach them because only one of its vehicles is equipped with four-wheel drive, which is needed to navigate snow-filled and icy roads. From now on, Boyer said, the College will replace one van each year with a four-wheel drive vehicle. “I was surprised that a school in the Berkshires only had one vehicle with four-wheel drive,” said Craig Martien ’23, one student on the bus.
Communication problems worsened this issue, according to Klass. During the night of Dec. 1, CSS informed students that officers could not be sent to locate the buses. While students were not made aware of reasons for this inability at the time, Boyer told those at the meeting it was due to safety concerns about officers and logistical limitations.
Martien explained there was confusion over why CSS was unable to make the journey. “That night, it felt like it was us against the wild,” Martien said at the meeting. “It was frustrating.”
Communication was further complicated by confusion about which buses were stuck where and who was on board. When CSS and College administrators received calls from concerned family members, they were often unable to update them on a student’s current location. In the days following, the College implemented a new online roster that shows bus attendance and status in real-time, so that those on campus can more easily locate students in transit.
College administration implemented many changes in the week following Dec. 1 to ensure that operations were improved in time for end-of-the-semester travel. While there was initial concern about bus travel on the weekend after exams, conditions remained clear enough that all buses were unaffected.