Well it’s happened again. Depending on your perspective the most dreaded or delightful season of the year is upon us. No, not the holiday season – SNOW season. And no matter which side you favor during snow season plow drivers are a most welcome sight.
Mark Harris, director of public works for Manor Township, shares a little of what happens during, and how his team approaches, storms and much more.
Before going further note there are differences between a township and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) snow plow driver. Township employees are responsible for additional tasks. PennDOT positions within the Winter Maintenance Program are temporary, but potential advancement opportunities exist which may translate into a permanent position. For more information and how to apply please visit Government Jobs and click on PennDOT Winter Maintenance Program 2018-2019.
Township employment is year round, and public works encompasses a large array of jobs such as street maintenance, storm water issues and traffic signals. Other duties include tree trimming, preventative maintenance or work in the parks since winter use is lower and they’re more easily able to accomplish construction projects. All these and more are done in between snowfalls. “As public works employees snow removal is a significant part of the first quarter of the year,” says Harris, “but it’s not all we do.”
The township, one of the largest in Lancaster County, covers 50 square miles, and all 11 employees and four contractors are needed to maintain the 110 miles of township roads and four miles of road they service for PennDOT. This means that every public works employee – including Harris – is a plow driver in the winter. “It takes everybody we have to make it successful,” Harris says. “I’m not just an office guy!”
To drive a plow a CDL Class B license with air brakes endorsement is required. Trucks below 26,000 pounds gross vehicle weight do not require a CDL license to operate, but Harris says all township employees are certified as that gives them flexibility.
Once you’ve acquired your CDL it’s yours to keep, needing only periodic renewals just like a regular driver’s license although licensees must submit to random drug and alcohol tests.
With winter storms the variables change every time. The rate of snow, temperature, and snowfall time of day create different challenges. For example plowing during daylight hours contends with more traffic. According to Harris the ideal storm lets them begin plowing at two and be done by six in the morning. “There’s so little traffic at that time that we’re really able to clean more efficiently.
“Our biggest challenge is the public driving as we’re trying to do our job. Some people like to drive too closely, and we have sudden stops. Another challenge is blowing snow. It makes it very difficult to see.”
In more hazardous conditions trucks are equipped with chains of which there are two different kinds. On-spot chains are activated by a toggle switch in the cab and are helpful on ice or when the snow isn’t very deep. Standard chains enhance traction and are used in icy or deeper snow conditions. Those chains take only ten to 15 minutes per truck to attach.
As snow starts to lay the roads are treated with an antiskid and salt combination that can melt snow up to two inches. With higher snowfall amounts the material isn’t as effective and plowing begins. Harris assesses the roads after plowing is complete and determines whether to apply additional material. Time of day plays a big factor as sunshine accelerates the melting while more material may be needed during the night.
Harris has predesigned defined routes for each driver. “They know where it starts and the sequence.” And while each driver is assigned a particular route, every truck contains the entire route and sequence list, allowing drivers to help each other if they finish more quickly or fill-in on a route for vacation or illness. As township employees they’re familiar with the streets, neighborhoods and challenging spots.
During a “normal” storm plow drivers start when the snow does and continue to work until everything’s cleared. A blizzard presents a different situation. Harris tries to keep one third of the crew active at any one time with two-thirds off.
You may think – what’s the big deal, they’re just driving a truck? “It’s very stressful,” says Harris. “Your eyes are straining, you want to be alert.” And no matter how careful the drivers are – and they are – there are things that make their jobs even harder. For example snow disguises the edges of the road and it’s especially hard to determine in areas that have no curbs. (Want to help the drivers and protect your property? Put yard markers out.)
Since public works employees perform various functions they need a wide range of skills although Harris recognizes that not everyone will be an expert in every field. Equipment, carpentry, masonry and vehicle service skills are all valuable. Strong communication ability is also highly regarded as each employee is a representative of the elected officials and interacts with the public constantly. Other important qualities include self-motivation, a good attitude and work ethic and a drive to accomplish goals.
When Harris is interviewing candidates he is looking specifically at their qualities, character and skills and assesses how that person would integrate with his team. Importantly he’s looking for well-rounded individuals who can perform and adapt to a variety of duties. A university education is not necessary. There are opportunities for training to further enhance skills sets, dependent on abilities. For example he has hired individuals that hadn’t possessed a CDL license at the onset with the caveat that they would acquire one within a specified period of time.
“We have an outstanding workforce,” shares Harris. “I have some guys who have been with me for 25 years. They live and work in the community and take pride in their work.”