Riding the public works range

Rodeo: The annual competition gives Baltimore County employees a chance to prove their skills at handling big machinery.

October 07, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The sun was shining with eye-squinting brightness and the sound of humming engines filled the air as Eric Shiflett took his seat in the dump truck and started down the day's snowplow route.

No matter that the year's first snowfall is probably several weeks away, or that the only thing Shiflett would be pushing was air.

Yesterday's Baltimore County "equipment rodeo" was all about maneuvering around simulated obstacles - the orange cones, construction barrels and fence-like supports that acted as stand-ins for parked cars and other barriers a plow driver might encounter.

"I did a lot better than last year, I think," Shiflett, a county employee for a year and a half, said after finishing the tight course. "I ran over everything last year."

Shiflett placed third out of 24 drivers competing in the snowplow category of the annual rodeo at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville, an event designed to test the skills of county public works employees through friendly competition.

Winners take home plaques and advance to the next level, the American Public Works Association regional competition in Virginia in May. But with snow likely to fall long before the regional event, county public works officials said it made sense to hold their event in the fall.

"We need to press their level of skill up prior to winter," said Edward C. Adams Jr., director of public works for Baltimore County.

Dozens of workers competed in five events - plow, bucket truck, front-end loader, backhoe and street sweeper. Only one, Nate Shields, a public works employee for more than two years, competed in all five.

"I came to win, but I'm realistic," said Shields, who usually runs a machine that cleans underground lines, not any of the five pieces in the competition. But Shields placed third in two events.

For several hours yesterday, men in orange or navy county shirts maneuvered the unwieldy equipment while judges watched and timed their efforts.

They changed a traffic light bulb with a bucket truck and were penalized for hitting the light with the bucket or changing the wrong bulb.

They dumped a load of stone into a dump truck with a front-end loader and drove backward through a winding course, but were docked time if they spilled the material or hit the truck.

And they tried - often in vain - to snag a small pin with a hook on a backhoe.

Those competing on the plow and the sweeper maneuvered through cones and barrels, negotiating tight turns and curves.

"It would have been a mailbox. Let's think optimistically," snowplow judge Sandi Bittinger said after a driver tapped against a barrier.

Baltimore County's public works rodeos date to 1995. They started after organizer Raymond Bass, who heads up the department's training academy, heard about the concept from a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. worker who told him about similar events in the private sector.

That first year, there was one event, the plow. Since then, the county has added the other four events.

"The competition, the camaraderie, that's what I brought back," Bass said.

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