Community Profile: Clearing the roads
A glimpse into the lives and routines of the city of Glenwood Springs snow plow operators
Early hours, frigid cold and deep snow can make for a hard days’ work for the 12 people responsible for digging Glenwood Springs out after a storm.
Jake Velasquez is the street superintendent for the city of Glenwood Springs Streets/SWAT (special work activities team) Department. Though he heads the department and the yearly snow removal operations, he doesn’t take credit for the hard working drivers behind the plows, many of whom know their routes like the back of their hands.
The crew is made up of 11 drivers whose days can start as early as 4 a.m. with a wake up call at 2 a.m., as many of them live on the western end of the county.
“Our snow plowing actually starts the day before the storm comes in,” Velasquez said. “We keep an eye on the weather and do our best to predict what kind of storm we are getting in town. If we have the right conditions we’ll go out and pre-treat the street with an anti-icing agent. Anything above 2 inches we bring in our whole department. Anything below 2 inches we bring in one of two shifts.”
The two shifts, red and blue, work on a rotating schedule of one week on, one week off.
The city is split up into six districts and within each district there are two crew members responsible for clearing and maintaining roadways during and after snowstorms. These districts are determined and broken up by main thoroughfares such as Blake, Midland and Donegan.
“Those are our priorities along with the bus routes, school routes and the hospital,” Velasquez said.
The average district with two crewmembers takes five hours for one pass-through. A pass through involves plowing and spreading a de-icing agent.
Shawn Shanahan, a city Streets Maintenance Operator II, helped develop a process last year where he and his partner work in an echelon plowing formation, meaning they are right behind each other.
“Then they break off at that point and each have a section of their district they are responsible for,” Velasquez said. “Because they both know their district really well and they know each other’s routes really well, if we have a vehicle failure or a plow failure, instead of having a delay of service, another service member can cover that just as easily if they were doing their stuff, too. So it is a slight delay service but the service continues.”
The routes are spaced out and selected so that they overlap on major roads. That means there is still someone available to cover primary routes even in a situation where two or three plow trucks go down.
“Snow plows take a real beating, they do break down on a routine basis but this year we are doing pretty good. We spent about two months rebuilding all of our plows before the season. So far we have had any major issues,” Velasquez said.
The department uses a variety of trucks with plows, loaders, a skid steer and a pre-treatment truck. The pre-treatment truck was a new addition this year.
“That truck is a new asset for us, it is kind of an experiment year. We have a 150 gallon pre-treatment tank and we can cover all of our bus routes, high(steep) streets and our main routes with one load,” he said.
“We’ve used it a total of 10 times this year…. in combination with the de-icing agents we’ve used it’s proven to be very, very effective,” he said. “The liquid itself is an anti-icing liquid that also works as a de-icing liquid so we have used it during snowstorms as well.”
If the new truck proves to be effective through the winter the plan is to look into new equipment that takes the pre-treatment system and combines it with the dry material, which would resemble what CDOT does and how they utilize their products.
Throughout the winter there are two rotating shifts with one person on call unless a storm is coming in over the weekend then an entire shift will be on call to ensure that there are at least six people at the ready to handle any storm that might hit the city.
“With that being said, even though we only have one shift on call for the last two years when a storm came in… I’ve had other members from another shift texting me to see if they needed to come in,” he said. “ So, the guys really help each other out as much as possible whether they are on call or not.”
“On the surface snow plowing is very easy to do — you’re just pushing snow off the road. But the reality of it is, it’s a little more complicated and stressful,” Velasquez said. “The guys go through their district again, they always go through a second time.
The initial pass is to open up the street to make sure it is safe to drive on. The second pass is to do more detail and clean up work to open up intersections which is generally not accomplished in one day but rather two to three days after a storm to get to each of these areas.
Gould Construction is contracted through the city to help in removing the windrows or snow piles that get left in the center and outside of roadways. Within the last four or five years they started using large snow blowing machines instead of solely relying on a front end loader which could often take weeks to remove all of the excess snow.
“They move extremely quickly — we have actually had trouble keeping up with them when we have to stack the snow piles up at the snow store slots,” Velasquez said.
Matthew Langhorst, the City of Glenwood Spring Director of Public Works, mentioned this is a new process that has been implemented within the last few years to be more efficient.
“Instead of taking a week or a week and a half to clear the windrows, basically Gould is getting through it in one to two days,” Langhorst said.
The city had 10 to 15 trucks running last winter during a 20-inch snow event and basically the entire city was cleared up in three to four days which would have taken a month to do if were relying on just the front end loaders, Langhorst mentioned.
“These things that Jake is experimenting with like the pre-icing stuff that we are doing, we try and do things every year that we think will be beneficial. The snow blower was an idea and it is working extremely well for the city,” Langhorst said. “So we are always trying to do better.”
Working with residents
Residents of Glenwood Springs often call in and voice concerns which the crews take as an opportunity to improve. They will often meet onsite instead of over the phone to get a better idea of how they can change or improve what they are doing.
“It’s easier for us to see what they are concerned about. A lot of times when we are plowing snow at 4 in the morning there is stuff we just can’t see,” Velasquez said. “So we try to get on a more personal level to determine what they are expecting and how can we help get to that point.”
After a particularly brutal storm swept through the area last winter and forced the closure of Interstate 70 through South Canyon, access to town was cutoff for the plow drivers who live in the west end of the county. As a result Velasquez was the only driver who lived in Glenwood and was left to plow the city on his own.
“We approached it just like any other storm —, unfortunately the highway closed and employees couldn’t get here… but other than that we treated it like any other storm,” he said. “We had to get the streets as safe as possible for people to traverse.”
Since then the city has put procedures in place for times when big storms are expected to hit the region keeping a handful of staff in the city overnight.
“Jake has done a great job at actually putting procedures to plowing methodology when before it seemed like we just kind of went out and plowed, “ Langhorst said.
The city as a whole comes together during each snowstorm; each field department has its role.
“Even though the streets department and the parks department kind of get the focus during plow days, it’s really a whole public works focus,” Velasquez said. “Everyone kind of comes together as a team to help the city out as much as we can.”
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