Chasing the trucks
There’s a lot more to clearing Wareham’s roads in a snowstorm than just putting the plow down and hitting the gas pedal.
From tracking drivers to dealing with residents to an overall lack of manpower, the people in charge at Municipal Maintenance have a lot on their plates when a snowstorm falls on Wareham’s 270-plus miles of road.
The man in charge — second year Municipal Maintenance Director Dave Menard — has plenty of practice dealing with snow. Menard got his start plowing when he was 16-and-a-half.
“I have 34 years of experience doing this stuff,” said Menard, who started plowing for the state of Massachusetts and then for Middleboro and later Wareham.
As director of the department, Menard’s responsible for keeping an eye on the town's roads, cemeteries, playgrounds, beaches, and other public spaces. When it snows, he’s the one responsible for making sure the roads are cleared as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Keeping track of the trucks
By 8 p.m. Saturday night, several inches of snow has fallen in Wareham, and as the snow piled up, the contractors began filling into the Municipal Maintenance Department’s office by the dozen.
With only eight full time employees on staff to deal with snow removal, the Town of Wareham contracted 67 plow drivers to clear roads during this current snowstorm. Members of the Harbormaster’s Department often help with snow removal, as do Water Pollution personnel. During and after the year's first big snowstorm, some workers worked 30-plus hour shifts at a time.
“We’re really understaffed, even with all the hired plows,” said Menard. “There are so many streets to do.”
A big part of the process for Menard is figuring out who’s where and what they’re doing.
Recently, the department purchased GPS cell phones for each of the drivers, but due to a problem programming the phones, they weren’t able to use them for this storm, though Menard’s hopeful to have them before the town’s next big storm, whenever that may be.
“I was really looking forward to (using the phones) — you can imagine how difficult it is to track these guys during a blizzard,” said Menard. “Sometimes you lose track of these guys for a couple hours. It’s almost impossible to keep with these guys.
The GPS units will make the job easier, but for now, Menard and Supervisor Glen Barrows are responsible for five each of the 10 “zones” set up for the town to manage the plows. When a storm hits, each of the two get out on the roads, identifying each and every plow driver by the make, model, and license plate number of their vehicle.
“They all have sections where they’re supposed to be plowing,” said Menard. “We go find every single truck. And we go out and visually inspect these roadways. It takes hour and hours.”
Dealing with drivers
Menard said it doesn’t happen often, but he’s had to fire at least one contracted driver this year for not fulfilling his duties.
“The word usually gets out on the spot after that,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to shoot off your routes without letting us know first.”
Dealing with residents
Menard said calls from residents are constantly coming into the office regarding snow removal. Complaints ranged from unplowed roads to roads not plowed wide enough to snow getting put on people’s property.
He said this year, drivers have also had some confrontations with residents, and dealing with people in cars is always a bit of an issue for drivers.
“It gets frustrating some times,” said Menard. “But you get used to it after a while. It’s a thankless job.”
“We’ve had some legit complaints, too,” he added. “Some of the little roads out there in the middle of nowhere were either unplowed or just gone over on one side.”
Short staffing, equipment
“Hopefully they try beefing up our staff a little bit,” said Menard, saying 13 full-time workers would be the ideal minimum he’d have on staff if he had his way. “We can count on our guys. They won’t dart off for an hour. I wish I had 20 of them.”
Two employees man the phones in the office while the plow drivers are out, and even some of the department’s custodians have gotten involved.
“We use them, too. We have one plowing and one clearing (town) buildings,” he said. “Our guys are really faithful. They don’t miss too much.”
“The newest equipment for snow and ice removal we have is 10 years old,” he added, saying that another problem the department is facing is the condition of its salt barn, which is showing severe signs of deterioration.
An entire wall has been reinforced by a man-made dirt mound, and Menard said that having a new barn would allow them more room to stock up on supply before winter. Sand can be kept outside, but salt needs to be covered.
“We need a larger salt shed,” he said.
Menard said that currently, there’s also a shortage of salt in the state of Massachusetts, so currently, Wareham and other towns have been forced to either use a sand/salt mix, or strictly sand. Normally, “straight salt” is the first option for clearing roads option.
“Salt is worse on the environment, but there’s less cleanup in the spring,” he said.
The town ordered 600 tons of salt in August, but a rise in prices and a shortage of salt across the state has led them to lean on the sand/salt mix.
“That’s one reason why we’re in a little bit better shape than some towns that didn’t get anything,” he said.
“We’ve never run out of salt (in the past),” he added, noting that prior to the winter, the price was around $48 per ton of salt compared to around $70 per ton currently.
He said to make supplies last, drivers in Wareham don’t spread sand or salt until after the roads are plowed instead of dropping it as they go.
“It was one of the worst storms I’ve seen,” he said. “It all dumped over a period of two days. Normally it takes three or more days to get that much snow.”
Menard said the department is hopeful to be reimbursed by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency for the time spent on some of the snow removal during the storm.
“We’re still sorting through all that stuff,” he said. “All of that’s still in negotiations.”
Dealing with this weekend’s storm
Fortunately for the plowers, the heavy snow that had hit Wareham Saturday evening had come to a lull, making it easier to clear roads prior to the more than six inches of snow expected for Sunday.
“This is a perfect storm (so far) for us,” said Menard of Saturday evenings break in the snow. “The last one, there were whiteouts for miles. It was a brutal, brutal storm.”
Despite the big winter and the hours and hours spent on the job, Menard said he believes the group is doing a good job.
“For the most part, I think Wareham does pretty well plowing its roads,” he said.