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Crews prepare for ‘fight’

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Public works: Teams take snow removal seriously

By Arin McKenna

Snow removal is a demanding job.

“Equipment operators have to drive, operate the plow, operate the sander and pay attention to what’s around them. And most of the time it’s in the dark,” Pavement Division Manager Tom Roach. said

As the season’s first winter storm approaches, crews are gearing up for action. Any employee who might be activated has been notified, equipment is being checked for readiness and 750–800 tons of granular deicer (a mix of sand and deicer which is replenished after each storm) has been stockpiled.

First responders are on standby. If the storm hits, the Snow Control Duty Officer – usually Roach – will call crews into action and coordinate the strategy of the “snow fight.”

“It’s kind of like a battle. Each storm is different and you have to come up with different strategies based on the temperature and the amount of snow so you win the battle,” Roach said. “Whoever is in charge of the battle just needs to stay on top of it.”

Pavement Division employees are the primary responders, operating salt/sand/plow trucks, motor graders, loaders and other heavy equipment. If the storm hits during the day, the first shift may work
16 hours, until they are relieved at midnight. The division tries to keep shifts to 12 hours.

The Duty Officer also coordinates a range of other resources, with several departments providing backup.
Parks, Traffic and Facilities Management Divisions assist in clearing selected public sidewalks, approved safe routes to schools, walkways and county-maintained building parking areas. Those with CDL-B licenses may be utilized on snow removal vehicles.

The Procurement and Warehouse Division is responsible for procuring and storing snow and ice control materials and may assist with providing emergency equipment such as chains, plow blades and safety equipment and with snow removal operations in the field.

The Fleet Division provides support services such as equipment repair, plow edge replacements, chain installation and field operations.

During a storm, the Pavement Division’s office is staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week to allow citizens to alert staff to emergency situations – areas that may need special attention before crews might normally get to them. The Ice Control Center also receives calls from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the schools and the county. “We do a lot of coordination between different groups,” Roach said.

The operation is so efficient that a snow removal vehicle can be prepared for action in approximately 45 minutes.

“We have a lot of resources, but if Los Alamos and White Rock both get hit with a big storm, our equipment and people are really stretched,” Roach said. A comprehensive Snow and Ice Control Plan, updated each fall, includes priorities for snow removal. The county budgets approximately $500,000 for snow removal yearly.

Equipment operators learn on the job, teaming up with veteran operators, although very few come with no experience.

“Most of our staff has 15 to 22 years experience, and many new people have experience working with other snow and ice operations like the New Mexico Department of Transportation,” Roach said.

The veterans include people like Robert Valdez, with 22 years in the division, and Glenn Gregory, on the job for 11 years.

“It’s fun, it’s challenging and it’s stressful,” Valdez said. “We enjoy doing it because we know we’re cleaning up the roadways for our community and for people who need to get to work or school and everyone else who needs to get through.”

Asked to clarify “fun,” Valdez responded, “I’ve always enjoyed being out in the snow. And I enjoy the challenge of getting here through the snow in the middle of the night and getting those roads open by morning. We’re here to serve the public, and it gives you a good feeling,” Valdez said.

Valdez is also proud of the having been called upon to assist other communities. “When Chama asked for help with a big snowfall, the county allowed me to go help clear snow with a snow blower,” Valdez said. “Just as others have helped us when we needed it, like with the fires, we’re always willing to go out and help a neighbor.”

“We’re conscientious, we’re prepared, we’re ready to get out there and fight the storm,” Gregory said.

The greatest challenges for both drivers are traffic on the road and vehicles parked on the streets. “Some areas are so congested we can barely get through,” Gregory said.

“It’s important that those roads stay open, so we take that very seriously. We will do everything within our power to see that these roads and streets are safe for commuters,” Roach said. “Citizens need to know that our staff is very committed and really do work hard at this. They take snow season very seriously. I think people need to appreciate that a little more.”

If the storm does hit today, the division is geared up and ready to go.

“For now we just continue with our day-to-day duties and wait.”

The Ice Control Center phone number is 662-8397. To see the county’s snow and ice control plan, go to losalamosnm.us/pw/Pages/PublicWorksDivisions.aspx.