Weary, willing road crews spread themselves thin

February 13, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

The mixture of sleet, snow and freezing rain is still falling Friday afternoon as Public Works Director James M. Irvin comes in from the storm that struck shortly after midnight.

The rest of the offices in the county complex are closed -- the first time in more than a decade -- but his are humming with activity.

"Tonight will be tough," Mr. Irvin says ruefully, as he sheds his overcoat and muffler.

His road crews have been working since 1 a.m., and he will send them out again in a few hours to plow and to spread the last of the county's salt on the major roadways. "It gets to be old in a hurry," Mr. Irvin says.

Every snow truck is equipped with a two-way radio, and Mr. Irvin listens for a moment to the chatter.

"You can hear fatigue," he says. "You listen for complaining, whatever that tells you it's time to give that driver a break. Usually, they know for themselves when it's time to get one."

The breaks last about an hour, during which the drivers are encouraged to get a beverage and something to eat. The county has worked out an arrangement with two diners and a truck stop that allows drivers to drop in and get whatever they want and put it on the county's tab, Mr. Irvin said.

Since Dec. 25, Mr. Irvin's crews have put in 10,000 hours of overtime, dealing with 11 storms. In the 49 days since Christmas, they have been on the street with plows, salt and cinders 30 times -- three out of every five days.

Most residents have been understanding, he says, but several have complained. He walks over to the highways bureau and asks for a status report.

"Pretty little so far," says Andrew M. Daneker, chief of the bureau. "Some people were pretty irate during the week, but they all seem to be getting used to it now."

The majority of the complaints come from people who share common driveways, or who live on cul de sacs or courts. On this day, the most irate complainer says he hasn't seen a snowplow in 38 years.

Mr. Irvin sighs.

As he and Mr. Daneker talk, the phone rings continually in the background. Some people are not calling to complain, but for information. They want to know which roads have been plowed and whether or not they are passable.

"We're down to our last 150 tons of salt," Mr. Daneker says matter-of-factly.

That sounds like a lot, but Mr. Irvin says it is enough to fill only 15 of the county's 55 trucks. It will do no more than provide a final light dusting of a few streets. It is the first time in more than 12 years that the county has run out of salt, Mr. Irvin says.

Mr. Daneker is distracted by a secretary, who he thinks is telling someone he is busy and can't come to the phone. He asks who's calling.

"It's not for you, Andy," she says. "It's for someone in purchasing."

4 "I'll take it," he says. "It may be about salt."

Everyone gathers around his desk and listens as Mr. Daneker talks prices and distance -- Frederick to Ellicott City and Bel Air to Ellicott City.

More bad news. The call was not about salt at all, but about an anti-skid product.

"They're all out," Mr. Daneker says. What they have instead, he says, is something "that is little more than dust, but better than nothing."

"We'll need a little patience and understanding" from residents, Mr. Irvin says.

"Hopefully, people will not go out [on the roads] unless absolutely necessary. It does appear that there are a lot out there though."

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