State and town snowplow crews worried about running short of drivers

  • Heavy snow brought a tree down over Route 14 in Royalton, Vt., Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018 diverting traffic until plow drivers from the Vermont Agency of Transportation cut it up and moved it off the road. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Published: 11/29/2020 9:08:36 PM
Modified: 11/29/2020 9:08:34 PM

With winter weather imminent, a fear is beginning to materialize among snowplow crews statewide: What if a whole crew were to be out sick with the virus when a snowstorm hit? Who would clear the roads?

That question has fueled planning efforts in public works departments across the state, with solutions that range from hiring extra drivers to setting up mutual aid networks between towns to making new websites for communicating delays to the public.

The state government’s 350 or so plow drivers are practicing social distancing and mask-wearing to avoid a mass outbreak, said Todd Law, director of maintenance with the Agency of Transportation. The drivers are also required to stay home if they have a fever, sore throat or other potential COVID-19 symptom.

With winter on the way, Law said it’s pretty common for people to display symptoms from a run-of-the-mill cold, and if drivers have to stay home, there could be a serious shortage.

If you’re a snowplow driver, and it’s snowing, there’s nothing you’d rather do than get out on the roads and start plowing, even if you don’t feel so hot, Law said.

“I think it’s going to be somewhat difficult for these people, because they take such pride in what we do,” Law said. “It’s been a tough process of planning for having significant absences.”

Normally, the department has 1.2 to 1.3 operators per truck, a total of about 350 drivers spread among garages across the state. That ratio means there’s not a lot of wiggle room for drivers to be out sick, Law said.

The agency has been hunting up people with commercial driver’s licenses from other departments and garages to fill gaps if needed, Law said. He said the agency is working to get more drivers CDL-certified and to find smaller trucks that fill-in drivers could handle without the special license.

“Even with that, with the absences we’re anticipating, we may not be able to fill all our trucks,” he said.

Law acknowledged that, between the paycheck and a sense of duty, drivers feel a strong incentive to fudge symptoms and come to work even if they’re under the weather. But he said that possibility is far less concerning to him than drivers telling the truth and still unwittingly spreading the virus.

“The drivers, they’re here for the right reason,” he said. “I’m a lot more worried people may be asymptomatic and are communicable before they feel any symptoms. That’s my biggest concern.”

At the management level, Law said his team has been offering training sessions with the state emergency management division, working through different scenarios of how to fill the gaps if too many drivers are out sick during a snowstorm — which workers would have to be sent home, who could take their place, etc.

“We might do some really creative things that we don’t normally do if something comes to fruition on this front,” Law said. “Our mission in the agency is the safe and effective movement of people and goods. Without maintenance employees that just doesn’t happen, especially during winter events.”

But in towns, which have far fewer resources than the state’s road crews, public works staff members have had to think about even more creatively about how the roads will get plowed, especially if drivers are sick.

Lisa Schaeffler, Williston assistant public works director, gathered information about equipment and manpower from municipalities across Chittenden County this fall to brainstorm about the possibility of a mutual aid network, where departments with too many drivers out sick could borrow drivers from other towns that might have a few extra.

“I don’t know whether that idea will go anywhere or not,” said Bryan Osborne, director of Colchester Public Works. “There’s lots and lots of questions to answer, enough that might prevent us from ever getting to do it.”

Dennis Lutz, director of Essex Public Works, said now is definitely the right time to be thinking about mutual aid networks in general, but snowplow crews probably aren’t the right place.

“Mutual aid works for fire departments; if there’s a fire in Williston, there’s not likely one in Essex, so you can send your trucks, and same with ambulances — but when a major snowstorm hits, it’s all at once,” he said.

Lutz said by the time a town department cleans its own town’s streets, and then sends drivers to help an understaffed town, it would be 24 or 48 hours too late. He said nowhere can stay snowbound for that long, especially when emergency vehicles need to travel busy streets.

“If we have a major snowstorm, open roads are a necessity for doctors and nurses and police officers. If the roads are covered in 4 or 5 inches, no one is getting to the hospital,” Lutz said.

The Essex department is trying all of the same personnel fixes as others across the state.

The town also has a website with a traffic light system that the public can check any time. Green means they’re fully staffed and plowing will go off without a hitch; yellow means a few employees are out sick, so plowing will take a few extra hours; a red light means a lot of people have been sidelined, and roads might not be plowed until the next day.

“I’m not overly worried about us getting it, but we plan for the worst case, and then if it doesn’t happen, we say thank goodness and we go on doing our business,” he said.




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