by Eric Stearley
Harsh winter weather returned with a vengeance Monday afternoon, causing MSD of Wabash County schools to send students home at 1 p.m. It was yet another episode in a dramatic series of winter storms that have reminded northern Indiana residents that this is snow country.
Prior to Monday’s snow, the area’s last major snowstorm started the night of Feb. 4. At 5 a.m. the next morning, fifteen Wabash County Highway Department workers met with Highway Superintendent John Martin to go over their assignments and special instructions for their next 10 hours behind the wheel of a plow truck. Though there was a good amount of snow on the ground, this routine was something with which the crew had become very familiar. Since the snowstorm at the start of the year that closed schools for the entire week of Jan. 6, the plow drivers only managed to get a single day away from plowing roads.
If snow isn’t falling, the winds are blowing roads shut. In a year with seven travel watches and five days at a warning level, the work has been nonstop. The money allotted to pay the department’s overtime for all of 2014 was nearly gone by Valentine’s Day.
On this particular morning, the wind was fierce, reducing visibility to dangerously low levels. Because of this, they would work in pairs, as they do during snow emergencies. Seven teams of two drove into the darkness to start clearing the roads that the rest of the county relies on to get to school and work, among other things. The fifteenth man drives a pickup with a smaller plow, used to clear out county towns.
Dean Custer and Ron Deeter made up one of the seven teams. Custer has been plowing the county roads for 15 years. He takes the lead, driving a three-axle truck equipped with a V-plow. Behind him, Deeter clears a second lane to the right with a straight blade plow fixed to the front of a two-axle truck. The team is in charge of clearing roads surrounding the Wabash River and Salamonie Reservoir, one of seven areas into which the county is divided.
The two-truck teams serve several purposes during severe weather. For one, having two trucks working together means that they can attach a V-plow to the front truck. The V-plow is able to move through deeper snow, but has its disadvantages.
“With a V-plow, you get snow from both sides,” said Custer. “No matter which direction you go, you’re going to get snow blowing back on the windshield.”
While a straight blade plow will often encounter this problem when throwing snow into the wind, a V-plow, throwing snow this way, can rarely avoid snow being blown back onto the windshield. Often, so much snow is thrown onto the windshield, that the cab becomes noticeably darker, the snow blocking natural sunlight. The truck drives on, slowly, waiting a few seconds for the windshield wipers to clear the glass, just in time for another gust of wind. Combined with the naturally poor visibility of this windy morning, it made the hours before dawn particularly hazardous.
“Before daylight it was extremely hard this morning,” said Custer. “We were on 150 West and you just couldn’t tell where the road was. With fields on both sides, snow is all you can see.”
Though snowplow drivers are typically more skilled than the general public at navigating roads in these conditions, the inability to see where the road is has an equalizing effect. Snowplows are not immune to ending up in the ditch. On this particular morning, the conditions caused as many as five county plow truck slide-offs, according to Deeter. Often, a truck can be pulled out by the second truck, another benefit of working in pairs during the worst conditions.
When asked if he still finds himself in the ditch after a decade and a half of experience clearing roads, Custer replied, “Yes, I think we all do.”
“It’s kind of a casualty of war,” said Martin, who spent 18 years in a plow truck before working in the mechanic shop and eventually taking over as superintendent. “If you haven’t put one in the side ditch yet, you will, because sooner or later, it’s gonna get ya.”
Snow and wind have not been the only adversaries the men behind the county’s plows are up against. This year, bitter cold has plagued the area. This adds an inconvenient and unexpected element to the job of the fifteen men. The county’s plow trucks, for the most part, are modern automobiles. While you won’t find XM radio, flip-down video screens, wood grain dashboards, or seats with built-in massage units, they are equipped with a quality heating system. When the mercury drops into snowmaking territory, the heaters keep the drivers as warm as they want.
However, when the temperature drops below zero, into the moustache-freezing, face-burning zone, the heaters get turned off and the drivers bundle up. It’s the great catch-22 of snowplow driving. In very cold conditions, a warm truck windshield causes the snowflakes to melt momentarily. The wiper blades move the droplets out of the way just in time for the air to freeze them once again. The result is heavy ice buildup, useless wipers, and countless stops to remedy the situation. To avoid this, the drivers keep the windshield cold, which means they also keep their truck cabs cold.
A driver’s schedule is set only by the whims of Mother Nature. Whether they are driving in an unheated truck cab for a short 8 hours, the usual 10 hours, or a full 12 hours depends completely upon wind, precipitation, travel advisory levels and whether students are traveling to and from school that day. Unless the roads remain clear, there are no weekends during the winter. A Code Red Travel Warning means that they could be called to escort fire trucks or an ambulance at any time of night. Normally, they work until the roads are clear or the school buses finish their routes.
“Winter gets to be long,” said Martin. “Like this year, it seems like you plow snow forever.”
With Monday’s snowfall, the drivers were back at headquarters at 5 a.m. Tuesday morning, ready for another day. Undoubtedly, many county residents were inconvenienced by the latest in a series of seemingly endless snowstorms. Some may look to blame those behind the wheel of the plow truck for any number of things, but knowing the answers to the following questions (most of which you’ve probably heard someone ask) can help everyone better understand how our relatively small Highway Department does what it does.
Q: Why isn’t my road plowed yet?
A: They’ve got a lot to do. The Wabash County Highway Department is responsible for clearing and maintaining just over 735 miles of road, and each road has two lanes. This means that 15 drivers are responsible for plowing more than 1,470 lane-miles each day, and some roads have to be cleared more than once.
A series of priorities determines how each team approaches the clearing of these roads, and in which order. Generally, they try to plow out fire departments and other emergency services and essential medical personnel first. The roads on which Lutheran Air 2 pilots live have to be cleared in time for them to make a 7 a.m. shift. School bus routes are next.
If a Travel Warning is declared, they have to respond to aid in emergency transportation. This year, they’ve had instances where they were needed to escort fire trucks, fuel trucks, REMC workers during a power outage, hospital staff, and even a dialysis patient.
Finally, the direction of the wind will determine which roads the drivers focus on. Roads drift closed when there is a crosswind. Monday, the wind was from the East, so crews focused on roads running north to south.
A: Why are the corners of the intersections not cleared?
Q: When snow is very heavy, particularly when the drivers work in pairs, they will spend the first day after a major snowstorm just trying to get all the roads open. The next day, after most of the snow is off the roads and they can drive more quickly, they will clean up the intersections and corners.
A: What are they spreading on the roads?
Q: Wabash County Highway Department uses a mix of 20 percent salt and 80 percent sand. The salt works to melt the snow and ice, while the sand helps with traction. The City of Wabash uses a similar mixture, while the Indiana Department of Transportation uses ice treated with blue chemicals, allowing the mixture to work at lower temperatures.
A dual-axle truck, like the one Deeter was driving, will hold 10-12 tons of the mix. Triple-axle trucks like Custer’s (or tandems, as they call them) can hold 15-20 tons of the mix. On particularly icy days, they can go through two and a half loads of the mixture.
A: Why doesn’t that truck have its plow lowered? The road is covered!
Q: Because the city, county, and state have jurisdiction over different roads, there are three different departments and snow-clearing crews located in Wabash (coincidentally, all three are located on Manchester Avenue between the Wabash County Fairgrounds and U.S. 24). In a case of bureaucratic inefficiency, county trucks are not supposed to drop their blades to clear snow on city streets or state highways, even if they have to travel on them to get to their destinations. In addition, the other two departments are not supposed to drop their blades on roads belonging to the county or each other.
Q: Why is that truck driving without a plow on the front? There’s snow to be cleared.
A: County trucks, unlike INDOT trucks, have a scraper or “underplow” beneath them. During the warmer months, this us used to even gravel roads, clear debris, and level roads after patching. In the winter, they are used as well. When snowfall is only an inch or two, they will often leave the front plow behind and use only the plow between their axles to clear the road. When snow is heavy, drivers often leave their front blade an inch off the road while letting their underplow scrape the pavement. This offers a two-step approach to clearing heavy snow.
Q: Why do they get so close to my car? They’re going to run me off the road! They think they own it!
A: Sometimes, it’s simply because snowplows are wide and take up a full lane. When a lot of snow is on the road, there may not be much passing room.
Other times, they just can’t see you. One thing that Martin, Custer, and Deeter agree on is that visibility and snow on the windshield is the most difficult part of the job. Visibility is even worse when trucks are equipped with V-plows.
“I would just ask that the public give our drivers a lot of room. They cannot see you a lot of the time,” said Martin. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that that guy can’t see you because of the snow that blows around the truck, so give them plenty of room”
The drivers spend much of their winter clearing the roads so that it is safe for others to travel. The last thing they want to do run into someone.
Q: Why is my mailbox knocked over? They don’t even care!
A: One of the most frequent complaints about the highway department (and all road crews for that matter) is that they have knocked down a mailbox. While plow truck drivers do hit a few mailboxes with their plow, the number is tiny compared to the number knocked over by the snow being thrown from the plow.
“What most people don’t understand is when snow comes off the end of that plow, it is really like throwing a concrete block,” said Martin. “It’s heavy and a lot of times it’s wet. Most people don’t realize there’s that much force behind it.”
Martin went on to explain that newer plows are designed to throw snow away from the roadway hard and fast, even at low speeds. Driving at 20 mph, Deeter’s plow had the force to throw snow higher than the top of the truck. Considering how snow compacts under the tires of a car, it is easy to see how a chunk of snow/ice could take down a mailbox.
Q: Does a Travel Warning (red) apply to every road?
A: “It applies to all county roads,” said Emergency Management Agency Director Keith Walters. “The last two big ones, when we went red, the city also included city streets. Normally, this is done by the Mayor’s request, but the ordinance is only for county roads. The only people that can close state highways is INDOT.”
With that said, it is safe to say that if the county is at a warning level, the city streets and state highways are likely to be hazardous as well.
“The city can go their separate way, but they’re usually right along with us,” said Wabash County Sheriff Bob Land.
A committee made up of Walters, Martin, Land, and County Commissioners Chairman Scott Givens advises on the decision, but it is ultimately up to Givens to declare and reduce advisories, watches, and warnings.
Q: Will I get a ticket if I drive during a Travel Warning?
A: You can get a ticket. In Wabash County, it’s a Class C Infraction, with a maximum fine of $500. In other jurisdictions, it may be more or less. Authorities near South Bend can fine a driver up to $2,500. As of the start of February, Land could think of three citations given for traveling during a Travel Warning.
Regulations state that during a warning, travel is restricted to emergency personnel only, but other essential travel, such as an essential factory furnace operator driving to work, is often admissible.
“We’re trying to keep people off the roads that don’t absolutely have to be somewhere,” said Walters. “Basically, it just elevates ‘travel at your own risk.’ We’re telling people the roads are bad and they should stay home if they don’t absolutely have to get out.”
Q: What do I do if I get stuck on the road?
A: The best thing to do if your car gets stuck on a county road is to contact the highway department or central dispatch. That way, the road crews will be aware of the vehicle and less likely to collide with it. Drivers are always urged to keep an adequate amount of fuel in their vehicles to keep the heat running, make sure cell phones are charged, and to pack a safety kit including blankets, water, and a shovel if possible.
With Monday’s storm, it is clear that winter weather is still here and may not let up for some time to come.
“This has been the worst weather we’ve had in 30 years,” said Walters. “We’re here to let people know that the roads are bad, and right now, they’re really bad, and to stay home.”
If you have to be on the roads, be careful, stay out of the way of plow trucks and emergency vehicles, and next time you see a highway worker, thank them for their hard work to keep our society functioning.