Viewing storm from behind a plow

It's tough, exacting work clearing the county's roads

February 14, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel

It might look like a fabulous huge toy, but operating a truck to plow snow-covered streets and salt slippery roads is not child's play.

"You've got to take it seriously. Somebody can get hurt," said Anne Arundel County public works employee Dereck Hopkins, who has 30 years' experience.

Plowing and salting is not a matter of sitting back and driving on cruise control while pushing a bunch of buttons.

It's a workout, Hopkins said during an early plow-and-salt run in between storms Tuesday. A plow operator has to be attentive to everything, from children and traffic to parked cars and driveways, he said.

It's also a bumpy, if slow, ride. Between checking the rear-view mirrors - "Drivers come around you and you've got to know they're there," he said - checking the front to make sure the plow blade was just where he wanted it, manipulating the joystick that maneuvers the plow blade, and making sure he was putting the vehicle into drive after he turned the steering wheel, Hopkins was constantly moving in the seat.

He backed up and repeated the move several times to widen the passable area of the street, creating a substantial snowbank on the side.

"Sometimes, I'll be hot, I'll be wringing wet," he said. "I'll have the air conditioning on."

Plow operators like Hopkins had been on 12-hour shifts since last Friday because of the snow emergency.

Going down the narrow neighborhood streets to widen a passable area means stops and starts, he said.

At one point, Hopkins stopped the truck so he wouldn't fill the driveway edge a homeowner had shoveled open. Then he started up again, stopped, drove around a parked car, stopped again to lower the plow blade and shove snow aside again. This is why, he said, plowing is faster and easier when vehicles are not parked on the street.

Veterans on the job have war stories - about miscalculating the edge of the road so the truck slid into a ditch, about needing help digging out the plow that got stuck, about people cursing at the truck because the plow blade just shoved a 4-foot-wide swath of snow into what used to be a parking space. It's all part of the job.

"I had to dig myself out numerous times," said Hopkins.

At the DPW yard, employee Kevin Henderson was getting ready to do what at first blush seemed unthinkable: empty his truck of salt in a barn that holds 1,500 or so tons of it.

For a fresh load of salt (eight to 10 tons) to go in, the old load has to come out.

"That's what you don't want," Henderson said, pointing to a chunk of salt the size of four cinder blocks, stuck together in the dampness and cold. "It can't go in. It gets stuck." It jams the salting mechanism, abruptly ending a salting operation.

That's what happened to Hopkins.

He stopped near the entrance to a cul-de-sac in Odenton that had a path open the width of a car.

"I'm trying to figure out what to do with this," he said after he stopped.

Manipulating the joystick that operates the rubber plow blade, checking mirrors and looking ahead, Hopkins nudged the truck forward and to the left to push snow toward the street's edge, repeating the operation a few times. Before backing up to go deeper into the cul-de-sac, he pressed the salt mechanism's button. As he looked in a rear-view mirror, he saw a little salt spin out, then nothing.

"Those big rocks are preventing the salt from coming down into the box," he said.

He backed the truck out of the street; the truck would be unable to turn around in a snow-blanketed cul-de-sac.

He would have to head back to the yard to dump that salt and get a fresh load. At the yard, it took 20 minutes to chip and pound big salt hunks into football-sized pieces that Hopkins could tug from the mechanism.

Unlike some other county vehicles, the plows are not take-home cars. To maintain a 24-hour road operation during the snow emergency, a driver pulled from another county department takes the midnight to noon shift.

Meanwhile, Hopkins goes home. And when he gets up, he shovels his driveway.

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