The daytime temperatures right now may not feel like it but fall and winter are right around the corner. And with their arrival comes the threat of snow and ice.
With that in mind, Virginia Department of Transportation facilities around the Commonwealth start preparing for the day Mother Nature decides to send snow and ice our way.
That preparation is highlighted this time each year by a “dry run” event at each of VDOT’s shops – like the one on Bagging Plant Road in Dublin.
According to Superintendent Anthony Barnes, the “dry run” involves a four-hour visit by a VDOT inspector from the Salem District office. The inspector checks out each truck and motor grader based at the Dublin facility.
“He uses a checklist to score every truck and motor grader,” Barnes said. “Everything from flares to triangles to snow chains. He makes sure every spreader is working, as well as lights, the plow, rigging and the truck itself structurally.”
Barnes likens the inspection to a Department of Transportation check through an entire truck. Even the first aid kit gets a look.
Barnes explained that if a vehicle scores “really good” on the inspection, it receives a “Snow Ready” sticker.
“They’re hard to get,” Barnes stated.
One particular one-ton truck at the Dublin shop displays three such stickers and was going for its fourth this year – which would be a record for Dublin he said.
Barnes noted that the shop’s one-ton trucks scrape snow in close-quarters such as subdivisions, cul-de-sacs and other “small stuff.” They’re also used in fire calls, he added.
Scores from all the “dry runs” in the Salem District, of which Dublin and Pulaski County are included, are compiled and announced at the annual Snow Conference event in Roanoke. This year’s is set for Oct. 2.
Also, at the conference, Barnes related, are discussions about everything from safety to routes, expectations, equipment, day to day operations and weather.
Barnes said a National Weather Service representative will attend the conference and give VDOT personnel a prediction on what to expect this coming winter as far as snow and ice is concerned.
Barnes noted the forecaster has been “pretty accurate” in past years.
A weather forecast for snow or ice sets off a flurry of activity at the Dublin shop.
A call from the Salem office sets the response level for the different shops in the district – either Level 1, 2 or 3.
“A Level One is for standby,” Barnes said. “They may be calling for a chance of sleet or freezing rain. We’ll do a skeleton crew and bring people in around 7 a.m. to monitor the roads and keep watch. When we start getting precipitation, we bring the rest of the crew in and we go into full 24-hour operations.”
Barnes said that a lot of times the Dublin shop will be on standby but get no precipitation – or temperatures and road temperatures stay up.
“The biggest thing we face is road temperatures,” Barnes said. “Once the road gets cold and we get rain or snow, that’s when we have our problems.”
Barnes said the key to their successful response to bad weather is communication.
The Dublin shop utilizes 13 dump trucks and 4 motor graders to clear Pulaski County’s roadways, including the Town of Dublin. It is responsible for clearing 679 lane miles.
Barnes also has eight to 10 independent contractors signed up to help with the work within the county.
“They’ve got everything from trucks to motor graders to big farm tractors,” Barnes said. “We rely heavily on them.”
One of those contractors is Andy McCready, Chairman of the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors.
“One of the companies that I own has had a contract with VDOT for many years,” McCready said. “We now have 2 pieces working for VDOT during snow events. One truck has been covering Newbern and Mountain View subdivisions and is being moved to Snowville. The second unit is a large John Deere farm tractor. It will work the industrial parks and Cougar Trail. Then it moves to the more difficult areas such as Case Knife Ridge, Mt. Olivet and Gatewood Rd. It is not unusual to see drifts of up to 4 feet in places.”
McCready says he likes working snow events.
“I enjoy getting out and working these areas. We really do have a beautiful county. I just wish people would listen to experts and stay home until the roads are clear,” he said.
Barnes said the main priority for clearing roadways is the county’s primary roads – I-81, Routes 11, 99 and 100 – and then the secondary roads.
“You’re not going anywhere if we don’t keep I-81 and the primary roads open,” Barnes said. “People will ask, ‘Why don’t you clear our road.’ If we get your road open, but don’t keep the primary roads open, you’re going to reach, say Route 99 and then you’re sitting.”
Each of the Dublin shop’s operators are assigned an area of the county to plow. When the crew goes into 24-hour operation, they’re split into two 13-operator crews with the daytime shift working 12 hours and the nighttime shift working 12 hours. So, plowing of the roads is continuous for 24 hours.
“We don’t stop until everything is cleaned up,” Barnes said. “Generally, when they go back to school that’s usually when we’re finished. If they’re out six days, that’s how long it took us to clear everything up.”
One of Barnes’ veteran operators is Derrick Lane. Lane has been with VDOT for 20 years and handles the Cloyd’s Mountain – Little Creek area.
When snow is in the forecast, Lane says his preparation begins with a good night’s sleep. Then he arrives at the Dublin shop and checks out his truck or motor grader – he operates both – and makes sure they are ready for his 12-hour shift. That includes putting chains on, getting a load of salt and fuel before getting on the road.
Lane first sits and monitors road conditions on Cloyd’s Mountain. He usually makes the call as to when to start plowing and spreading salt. Once he starts, Lane keeps the roadway open between Lilly Dale and the Giles County line followed by secondary roads in the area.
Lane said the toughest part of his job is the multi-day weather events. “After a few days you get really tired sitting in the truck,” he noted.
He recalls once several years ago having to work 40 days straight. He noted that snows like that haven’t been seen in these parts for a while. “Usually we’ll get one big snow a year,” he said.
Like most people, Lane has gotten stuck in the snow before. And, like many, he’s had accidents. His worst involved a car sliding into him and flipping over and landing on his snowplow.
And, he confirms, ice is the worst!
Barnes said operators get the most work done during nighttime hours when most people aren’t on the roads.
That’s a sure sign that, when it snows, it’s best – and safer – to stay home and let the pros do their work.
By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot