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Olga Peters/The Commons

This Brattleboro snowplow has more side-view mirrors than the average vehicle, but Rabideau says he can’t always see the approaching cars. “People think we can always see them,” he says.

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Experience, chemistry, technology: The art of keeping the roads clear

BRATTLEBORO—DPW Truck No. 4, a 2004 15-ton green dump truck carrying an orange salter and matching plow, growls and eats through drifting snow on a steep incline of Guilford Street.

Driver Kyle Rabideau crunches forward in his seat, one hand on the truck’s steering wheel and the other on the plow controls.

As if moving with the heavy truck’s momentum, Rabideau first leans left as he maneuvers the vehicle around a corner, then right, around the next corner. Finally, he leans back in his seat as he takes the truck back down the hill.

Each of the Department of Public Works’ 13 drivers started on the small sidewalk plow before moving onto their own routes, he explains. Brattleboro has approximately 14.5 miles of municipal sidewalk.

Rabideau drives his truck along a route that extends from Birge Street to Pauls Road near Commonwealth Dairy. The route includes most of the roads on the west side of Canal Street.

The Jan. 18 ice storm that turned town roads into bobsled runs worked the plow drivers harder than the Jan. 27 blizzard that fell short of the predicted snowfall, he says.

During that storm, all the trucks “were chained up,” he says. Even with chains covering their tires, some still slid off the road.

As he drives through Tuesday’s dry fluffy snow, “We would prefer this than that,” Rabideau says with a laugh.

A long day

It takes Rabideau approximately 3.5 hours to clear the roads on his route. Each road, he says, receives four passes: two rough passes to clear snow from both lanes of the road and then two salting passes to lay down salt.

During some heavier storms, Rabideau has put in 40 hours. It can get tiring, he says. But he loves his job.

The DPW always has someone on call, he says. When snow starts, the on-call staff member calls in around three drivers. If the snow is heavy, all 13 crew members are called in.

The 31-year-old has worked for the DPW for almost five years. Rabideau started working for the water management side of the department before moving over to the highway side.

When speaking, Rabideau grins easily. In quiet moments between conversation, he studies the road ahead, his face serious.

Rabideau has spent his morning clearing the center of the roads on his route. Now, in the afternoon, he pushes back the edges of the snow-filled road, expanding it as much as possible.

If the drivers don’t plow back the banks, they’ll eventually encroach, narrowing the roads with each snowfall, he says.

The truck bounces and jolts.

Rabideau apologizes for the bumpy ride. Ridges of snow can form on the road during plowing. Salting will melt the snow, and a later pass of the plow will scrape those ridges away.

From plowing to salting

Rabideau waits for word that he can start salting his assigned roads. If drivers put down salt too soon, it will only get plowed up before it has a chance to melt anything, he explains.

As if in response to the comment, a voice crackles across the truck’s radio telling drivers they can start salting.

Rabideau grins and, with a flick of a switch on the center control console, salt streams out of the removable salter on No. 4’s bed. Come warmer weather, the salter will be replaced by a dump bed.

He glances back through the truck’s rear window to make sure the salt is pouring out evenly.

Rabideau’s truck is designed to drop salt in front of the rear tires. According to DPW director Steve Barrett, some of the older models dropped sand or salt out the back of the truck. During really bad storms, this arrangement left drivers attempting to salt steep hills with only one option: to drive the truck up the hill in reverse.

The plow crew has to be careful on the roads, Barrett explained. Road equipment like graders and dump trucks are heavy. If they start over a bank, there’s no stopping them.

A few years ago, said Barrett, shaking his head and shivering at the memory, one driver went over a 150-foot embankment in a grader. Luckily, the grader missed hitting anything and slid to a stop. The driver was able to climb out uninjured.

Another time a dump truck rolled over into the tree line after sliding on ice. The driver had one of the windows open. Snow piled in, said Barrett. The driver found himself on his side with his head in a pillow of snow.

‘You’ve just kind of got to go with it’

The wheels on Rabideau’s truck spin as he tries to back up on a patch of icy road along Guilford Street.

When asked if he’s ever gotten stuck while plowing, Rabideau thinks. The truck’s tires grip the road again and he pulls the truck forward to tidy up the intersection of Guilford Street and Signal Hill Drive.

He shakes his head. No, Rabideau can’t think of a time he’s gotten his rig stuck.

Then he does remember the time he got stuck sideways across the road and one of the loaders had to come to his rescue.

“You’ve just kind of got to go with it,” he says of winter driving.

Rabideau says that car drivers sometimes dart around his truck while he’s plowing. While he has more side-view mirrors than the average vehicle, he can’t always see the approaching cars.

“People think we can always see them,” he says.

The art of snow removal

Clearing roads of snow and ice in general is a combination of experience, chemistry, and technology, said Hannah O’Connell, the DPW’s highway and utilities superintendent.

When conditions call for sanding or salting the roads, the DPW uses more salt than sand.

Sand, said O’Connell, is more expensive to clean up with a street sweeper in the spring. It also puts more pressure on the town’s storm water and drainage systems in the form of increasing scouring and sediment.

In storm water management, towns try to minimize the amount of sediment in the water, she said.

Snow removal is expensive, said O’Connell. More towns and state transportation operations are looking for “more bang for their bucks” from the new technology and road chemicals coming on the market.

The salt that Brattleboro’s DPW uses is effective until about 18 or 20 degrees Fahrenheit, she said. Other chemical mixes work until 0 degrees.

Larger agencies have trucks with sensors to read road temperatures, she added. The sensors help the driver determine which chemical mix to use.

Brattleboro, however, uses plows and shovels to remove the fluffy stuff.

As Rabideau works the plow’s hydraulic controls, he angles the massive blade so it tosses whole swaths of snow into the tree line or, in some cases, into freshly shoveled driveways.

On one pass of Winter Street, a homeowner shoveling his path watches as No. 4 passes by and leaves its infamous ridge of packed snow in its wake.

The homeowner’s lips form a series of words Rabideau has heard before.

“I tell people I have to go home and do the exact same thing,” he says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #290 (Wednesday, January 28, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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