Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn received criticism for not declaring a snow emergency when a snowstorm blew through Ohio Jan. 19 and 20.
Sheriffs in many other counties issued warnings of Level 1, 2 or 3, the most severe, but Wasylyshyn did not, although his northwestern Ohio county received its share of snow.
“The intent of the levels is to allow people to prepare for potential closure of roads (Level 1 or Level 2), then the actual closure Level 3,” Wasylyshyn said in an open letter Jan. 21. “If the storm is not intense enough” to make closing roads likely, “there is not a need for the levels. The levels were not intended for every snow event.”
In central Ohio, Franklin County was under a Level 2 snow emergency through the storm; Delaware County fluctuated between Level 2 and Level 3, and Morrow, Union, Licking and Pickaway counties were under Level 3.
But as last weekend shows, the decisions by sheriffs — who are given the sole authority by Ohio law to declare a snow emergency — are subjective and somewhat arbitrary. The emergency levels themselves are state guidelines, not part of the law.
Wasylyshyn said road conditions during Saturday’s storm were “passable,” and he urged Wood County residents to “use common sense while driving.”
He later clarified his stance on snow emergencies in a press release Jan. 23: “A Level 3 will only be called in the event of whiteouts or if the roadways are impassable and the duration will be for as short of time as possible to safeguard our freedoms. We do live in northwest Ohio and get snow and ice frequently every winter.”
Franklin County Sheriff Dallas Baldwin convenes with the state Emergency Management Agency, the Central Ohio Transit Authority and the state Department of Transportation, among others, before declaring a snow emergency, according to spokesman Marc Gofstein. The committee assesses road conditions based on the mobility of snowplows, ice buildup and predicted snow levels.
Additionally, Baldwin accounts for effects on local businesses when issuing snow emergencies, Gofstein said. A Level 1 emergency indicates icy roads and blowing or drifting snow; Level 2 urges motorists to use caution and avoid driving if possible, but roads remain open. A Level 3 closes all roads and makes motorists who do not have an emergency subject to arrest.
In reality, however, arrests are rare — even under the worst conditions. Delaware County reported no arrests for driving during its Level 3 snow emergency last weekend, according to Chief Deputy Dave Wiseman, and has made only a handful of such arrests in the past 20 years.
Cases are handled individually and evaluated at the discretion of law enforcement officers, Wiseman said. Typically, those driving for “essential job functions” or emergencies are exempt from arrest.
“Our first priority is your safety; however, deputies legally are permitted to arrest individuals seen driving in a Level 3 snow/ice emergency,” the Delaware County sheriff’s office tweeted last weekend.
“The likelihood of a specific scenario occurring in which you’d be arrested? There’s no way of knowing that for certain.”
Maggie Prosser is a fellow with the E.W. Scripps Statehouse News Bureau.