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Snow job

Barrett: Planning, experience are keys to a quick response to major storms

BRATTLEBORO—By the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 10, weather forecasters were predicting that a major snowstorm would hit New England on Wednesday, Jan. 12.

Snow predictions varied widely, but it was clear that the Brattleboro area would get at least a foot of snow on Wednesday morning.

The Brattleboro Public Works Department, fresh off of dealing with a dusting of 4 inches of snow on Saturday, Jan. 8, knew what was ahead of it.

Highway General Supervisor Al Franklin and the road crew’s 12 equipment operators/laborers and three mechanics are used to dealing with the worst of winter weather. And the Jan. 12 storm was every bit as bad as advertised, leaving 19 inches of snowing Brattleboro, according to the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y.

Yet, by the following morning, most of the main streets in Brattleboro were cleared of snow.

How did it happen?

Public Works Director Steve Barrett agreed to walk The Commons through the process of how his staff prepares for a big snowstorm and what it takes to remove tons of snow from the town’s roads.

Weather watching

With today’s weather technology, Barrett said, crews rarely get surprised by a storm.

“We live, eat, and sleep weather,” he said. “We really pay attention to it, and with the radar and the satellites and the storm tracking computer programs, we usually have a good idea what is going to happen.”

That’s a marked contrast from the days of the telephone tree, when “we used to call over to the Bennington town garage, and they used to call Albany and that’s how we found out about the storms that were coming,” Barrett said.

Armed with the knowledge that a nor’easter was coming, Barrett said by the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 11, the department’s vehicles were all filled with fuel, and the sand and salt trucks were loaded and ready to go.

Normally, one driver works on standby duty overnight. Barrett said that the police are the first line of communication to the town garage. If the officers on patrol start to notice that road conditions are deteriorating, they tell the police dispatcher, who in turn will call the standby driver at home. The driver will, in turn, report for duty and call  the other drivers.

“But with this storm, it started so early that the standby driver was in at 2 a.m. and everyone else was in early, too,” said Barrett.

Riders on the storm

Depending on what type of precipitation is expected from a storm, a decision is made on whether the trucks will cover the road with salt, sand, or a mixture of the two.

“The first driver always starts salting the main roads to clear them up, than we start plowing,” Barrett said. “We don’t use sand on the main roads if we can help it, because we have to sweep it up in the spring.”

During the last snowfall, temperatures remained in the low 20s and the snow was light and fluffy, so plowing wasn’t as hard as it could have been.

Barrett said that Brattleboro’s 12 snow removal routes cover 84 miles of town roads. The heavily traveled roads and school bus routes get priority, followed by other roads.

“Everyone get assigned a route,” he said. “Some are harder than others with different challenges. Union Hill is always tough. Upper Dummerston Road is flat, but you get drifting. But the routes even themselves out, so everyone has about the same amount of work.”

The department’s 12-15 pieces of snow removal equipment include the plows and sanders mounted on the dump trucks, graders and bucket loaders with plows, and the pickup trucks with plows used on narrower streets.

“We switch up the equipment as we need to,” Barrett said. “We also have the guys from the water department to pitch in if we need them.”

The maintenance staff was also on duty to deal with equipment breakdowns and other problems. Barrett said that there were no equipment failures during this storm.

Many people stayed off the roads last Wednesday.

“That always makes easier for us,” said Barrett. “The toughest storms for us are the 4-to-6-inch storms, where it’s not so much snow to keep people from going into town, and you have work around the cars and people.”

Barrett said his crews had things under control by mid afternoon last Wednesday, but the plow drivers still needed to do a little more work before they were sent home for the night at 9 p.m.

Clearing the parking lots

Once the roads are clear, Barrett and his crew turn to the town parking lots.

The strobe lights in the downtown area that alert motorists to a snow emergency were flashing.

The orange light means snow removal will take place in the town’s uncovered lots between 1 and 7 a.m. The purple light means that no parking on any street in the downtown business district between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Former Police Chief Richard Guthrie came up with this system years ago, which he reportedly modeled on something similar he saw in Bennington.

Barrett said the entire Public Works staff is trained to operate the snowplows and the snowblower, which can fill a dump truck full of snow in about 10 seconds. That speed is useful for tackling the big piles of snow that accumulate in the town parking lots.

In the days and nights after a storm, Barrett said additional trucks are hired to act as a “bucket brigade” to haul snow to one of two dump sites — an old parking area off Route 30 and another site near Exit 1 of Interstate 91.

“That’s usually the only time we need to get outside help,” he said.

Sidewalks are always last to get cleared, particularly Western Avenue. “It can take days sometimes for us to catch up,” said Barrett.

The final tally

Barrett figures the cost of snow removal for the Jan. 12 storm was about $20,000.

“With level-funded budgets, we try to do the best job we can and save money where we can,” he said. “We’ve cut our salt usage by almost half, from 5,000 to 3,000 tons, but it still costs about $88,000 a year for salt and $27,000 for sand. Labor is about $80,000 a year, and the cost of renting equipment varies.”

But the number that give Barrett the most comfort is 344. That’s the number of years of experience he says his department has.

“And if you throw in the water department guys, it’s about 600 years,” he said.

“Our guys have been through a lot of snowstorms over the years, and they do an excellent job,” Barrett said. “When it comes to snow removal, if you do a good job, you never hear about it. But if you don’t, the phone rings off the hook.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #84 (Wednesday, January 19, 2011).

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