Unfortunately the weather is not being particularly cooperative and I know from experience that this kind of extended winter storm season and extreme cold temperatures can wear thin on resident’s nerves so I thought this was a good time to provide an update on where we’re at with our winter operations.
Street Plowing — When it comes to street plowing City crews concentrate on high traffic and high risk locations (hills, bridges, schools) first. The crews will stay on those high priority streets as long as the rate of snowfall requires. Sometimes the crews may have to work the high priority streets all day. When the supervisor thinks the high priority streets are reasonably safe, he will began to cycle the plow trucks to secondary collector streets.
Once those streets have some degree of safety, the supervisor can begin releasing the trucks into neighborhood streets. Often the crews only have time to run a single pass at first in the neighborhoods before having to get back to the secondary and primary streets to re-clear them and start over again due to continued snowfall.
In a typical storm event this cycling back and forth goes on for 48 hours. The goal is to get at least one pass down residential streets by the end of 48 hours but each storm is different and can affect those results. The crews will also be diverted for accidents and other emergencies so although we have a plan for snow plowing, those plans can change depending upon the circumstances.
Once the snowfall recedes, the crews will circle back into the residential streets to go from a single travel lane to a plowed lane in both directions. It’s at this stage that the City needs resident’s cooperation to not park their vehicles on the street so that we can safely maneuver the plows down the street in a timely manner. As more travel lanes are opened up the trucks will then work at the intersections to push back the piles that have accumulated at the corners.
During a storm event the crews work around the clock. After the storm has stopped the supervisor may continue a night shift with various staffing levels depending upon the amount of work still needing to be done, personnel policy limitations (by law plow operators may not plow for more than 16-hours and they must have an 8-hour period of rest), equipment availability, overtime budget, weather forecast and worker safety. Each of these factors influence the supervisor’s decision but rest assured the goal is to restore safe street conditions as quickly as possible citywide.
Winter storm response is more than just plowing. It includes decisions about rates of applying dry salt, pre-wetting salt, adding calcium chloride, or using a brine product to pre-treat the streets. Each of these techniques have an ideal temperature and weather range when they are most effective so the supervisor does his best to study the weather forecast and match the tactic to the condition. The use of these products has budgetary impacts so it is critical to be prudent in their use.
It’s important to keep in mind that the City’s plow operators are also responsible for responding to other City maintenance issues, e.g., water line breaks, sanitary and storm sewer backups, traffic accidents, and municipal building problems, so when the deep freeze hits our crews are often spread in many directions. When fully staffed our Central Maintenance Division has nineteen employees that can plow. During a major snow event such as this past weekend the City typically responds with 9 trucks but some employees were temporarily diverted during the storm to deal with 3 water main breaks.
Salt supplies in our region have made the news because the salt suppliers have not been able to keep up with demand so even though we have a contract for salt delivery, everything is on back-order and the suppliers are rationing their deliveries while they try to ramp up salt production. As a result, we’ve had to be ultra-conservative in our salt applications so as to not be left with any salt until the next delivery. The good news is that the temperatures have been so cold that salt has less effectiveness so scaling back our salt applications really hasn’t had any appreciable impacts on street safety.
However, the extreme cold and reduced salt has meant more driving on hard pack snow in neighborhoods rather than bare pavement which is actually a consequence of the circumstances rather than sub-par performance by the plow operators. I realize that residents may not necessarily understand that subtlety, but in extreme cold, driving on hard pack snow can provide a more predictable and safer driving surface on low volume streets where black ice can be prone to develop — particularly as salt applications have been cut back.
I know residents can get frustrated as they drive around our region during a storm and see different street conditions across city boundaries but I caution against investing too much in intra-city comparisons because rates of snow fall in lake effect storms can vary even from one side of Kent to the other depending on where the bands of snow pass thru town — but I know it’s only natural to compare and frustrating when they think we came up short.
When we receive complaints, we share those with the supervisors that lead the operations so that they can double check to make sure something wasn’t missed during all the shift changes and so they can keep an eye on those areas when the next storm arrives. I know that the crews worked around the clock and although we are having to be careful with our salt use due to shortfalls in Northeast Ohio, the crews followed their standard emergency snow operations procedures and I think did a great job keeping Kent streets safe under the circumstances.
I checked with the Police Chief and I am grateful that she reports that from an accident perspective the streets in Kent were safe even if they were a bit snowy.
Our City Service Director reports that we currently have 835 tons of salt in the barn. On 1/3/2014 we ordered 1,000 tons of which we have only received 462 tons or less than 50% of our order (first deliver on February 1, 2014; 28 days after ordering). On February 5, 2014 we ordered an additional 1,000 tons so when combined with the January order we have received less that 25% of our combined January and February orders.
Prior to salt rationing being implemented on 2/1/14 there were a total of 18 snow events this winter. For the 18 events there was 3,600 tons of salt used or an average of 200 tons/event. Post 2/1/14 there have been 4 events using 225 tons of salt or an average of 56 tons/event.
If salt were used at the normal rate (pre rationing) usage would would have approximated an additional 574 tons for the 4 events in Feb. Using the current estimate of 835 tons in barn and subtracting the estimated quantity of salt not used in February the salt dome would only have 261 tons remaining — a perilously small amount.
As you might imagine, salt delivery is a serious concern. We are being told that those communities that are telling the salt suppliers that they are out of salt are being given a preference for delivery but some cities are reporting that they are out of salt and still haven’t received a salt delivery — we don’t want to find ourselves in that situation.
The Service Director and I have discussed this and it comes down to our willingness to take the risk that if we use all of our salt now will we receive a shipment in a time for the next storm. We’re currently taking the approach of better safe than sorry.
Rationing now makes sense because salt has minimal functional impact (due to the extreme temperatures) and we just don’t want to run the risk of depleting our stockpile only to have a possible ice storm head our way and be out of salt when it will be needed the most. The alternative would be to roll the dice, use all of our salt and shut the City down if an ice storm were to occur and we had no salt to respond — never a good option.
Sidewalk Shoveling— After much discussion over the last couple of years the City kept the legislative framework for sidewalk shoveling largely unchanged. Our Compliance Officer is tasked with doing his best to advise residents and businesses to clear their sidewalks for safety reasons in response to a compliant. The Officer will make personal contact either in person or in a letter to encourage clearing the sidewalk but we stop short of citing for the clearing of natural snowfall.
However, we will cite the owner when the owner or their contractors intentionally pushes snow from driveways or parking lots and blocks the sidewalk. For the natural snowfall, we want to encourage compliance but given the cumbersome court process involved we decided against adding fines, penalties, etc. that are procedurally almost unenforceable.
Generally speaking the Compliance Officer works on a compliant basis but we do take a more pro-active approach in the chronic areas such as Water Street and E. Main Street to try to stay out in front of the issue in those high pedestrian areas. How effective that is remains a matter of debate. At the moment walking along the sidewalks in front of the commercial strips is a bit treacherous.
For the first time this season, the Public Service Director is arranging for a private contractor to get crews in to clear the pedestrian crossings in the downtown area and City crews will also begin hauling some of the piles of snow out of downtown.
The best strategy to fight the winter storms is for spring to arrive — sun and warmer temperatures are our best ally. It can come soon enough.