Clearing St. Albert's roads
Keeping the streets clear of snow has evolved over the years
Saturday, Mar 29, 2014 06:00 am
Snow plowing and sanding has come a long way in St. Albert.
A common sight during the winter is that of a speed plow distributing sand and pushing snow while an operator sits securely inside.
It’s a far cry from the snow plowing and sanding system Lynn Ness can remember. Before he started with the city’s public works department back in 1976, the sand used to get onto the road in an entirely different way.
“This is just before I started. All the trucks used to be single axles … there was a platform on the back where a gentleman would stand and actually throw the sand off the back of the truck,” Ness said. “Technology has come so far that way.”
Ness started as a garbage man and has worked his way up in nearly four decades of city service to the position of team lead for operations.
After the snow flies on a Sunday night, Ness will arrive at the office on Monday morning and assess the situation. In the meantime, he can count on the night crew to get snow-clearing efforts started so the morning commute can go relatively smoothly.
Using the example of five centimetres of snow starting late Sunday night, Ness described what would happen.
“They’ll do the highway, they’ll do the major arterials,” Ness said.
And if there’s any left over, the day shift will pick up right where the night crew left off.
The public works building in Campbell Business Park is snow command central, with Ness at the helm.
“I always say I’m just steering the ship, I just point them in the direction, right? Once they get going they know where they’re going, they know how to deal with it for the most part,” Ness said.
Radios play a key part in that, connecting the crew to each other and to Ness.
The equipment operators can be counted on in part thanks to the vast experience that makes up the team.
Public works manager of operations Tony Lake estimated there’s an average of 12 years of experience throughout the crew.
That crew has to be well trained to know how to handle the variety of snow events that can occur. After all, not every snowfall is the same, which means there’s a large volume of different scenarios that might be needed to make sure the city’s snow removal policies are upheld.
“Sometimes it makes sense to have all the trucks all together all at once so it’s only one pass go through. If we’ve got a different kind of snowfall or higher priority areas that haven’t been done, we might have to split up the fleet and do it that way,” said Lake.
The city’s snow and ice control policy is reviewed every few years and is scheduled to come before council later this year. Roads are divided up into varying priorities for plowing and sanding depending on a variety of factors.
While there’s a policy in place along with winter patterns to help predict how the plowing and clearing season might play out, the weather can still occasionally throw an unexpected snowball.
“Every year I do this there’s another one thrown at me. Honestly. Mother Nature will win … every time. But you know what? There’s been so many scenarios over the years we’ve learned from it,” Ness said.
This year’s surprise was the volume of freezing rain, which fell and then the temperature dropped to -30 C. The bond between that ice and asphalt is a difficult one, Ness said.
While some of the more important pieces of “equipment” in public works’ wheelhouse might be the operators, technology plays a crucial role in how snow plowing and removal is handled now.
For instance, the use of a geographic information systems (GIS) tracker has a variety of applications for the department.
There’s a screen mounted in the public works offices where icons representing several pieces of equipment can be seen on a city map, tracking their positions in real time.
“We can actually backtrack where we’ve been, how long we’ve been there, when was the last time we were there,” Lake said, noting it’s useful when complaints come in.
The system also helps in case an operator has gone home sick and didn’t let Ness know where they left off, or for team leads to check out the tracking pattern and make sure everything was done correctly.
“The greatest asset of it is it’s also a fleet management tool,” Lake said. The GIS equipment can track idling and running time along with other data that’s useful.
While there’s a variety of equipment used by the public works crowd, when it comes to clearing snow and ice off the roads, the key is probably the speed plow.
“I’ve always said our bread and butter here in St. Albert is our speed plows,” Ness said.
Speed plows are the dump trucks that both move snow to the side and spread sand as they go.
St. Albert and nearby municipalities trade information and knowledge about equipment – the day Lake and Ness were interviewed, some of the other staff were at nearby Spruce Grove, checking out a new icebreaker.
And then there are the operators who have to brave the wild weather to get roads cleared for users.
When it comes to road-clearing, there are 27 operators who are on 24-hour, five days a week shift rotation. On the weekend there are operators on call.
Lake said once staff who clear trails, outdoor rinks and sidewalks are added in, there’s about 70 staff.
“It’s pretty much a well-oiled machine,” he said.
Technology isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the evolution of the city’s public works department.
Ness reflected that when he started working for the city, it was still a small town. Someone would call and you’d know exactly where they were located. After the call came in, you could merely look at someone else in the shop and they’d go over to address the problem.
“We’ve come from that and we’ve built into this city,” he said.
In 1976, when Ness was hired by public works, the population of St. Albert according to Alberta Municipal Affairs was 23,905. The last municipal census in 2012 pegs the population at 60,994.
“It was neat back then because we were smaller and you could deal with stuff quicker and faster and easier, but we’re still trying to keep that small town image here where we’re catering to people’s needs as best we can,” Ness said.
“As an organization grows we’ve had to implement systems and technologies to help us maintain that connection with the resident. So we’re still trying to offer that personal service but be as effective as possible for the grand conglomerate,” Lake said, noting it can be a difficult balance to maintain.
Public works’ winter and spring duties go beyond just getting enough snow off the roads so they’re drivable.
A couple of times a year contractors are brought in and snow is removed. But public works also does work to make sure catch-basins are clear along with other tasks to manage snow and ice.
And finally, there’s the sand.
While it helps with traction during the winter, once the snow and ice is gone, the sand is left and it can take weeks to sweep the roads.
“It’s a month-long operation,” Lake said.
As evidenced by recent snowfall entering spring, winter isn’t quite done with St. Albert yet. But the bulk of the snow so far this season fell in November, December and early January.
“(Winter) sure started off with a bang,” Ness said.