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How Covington Public Works Prepares for Snowy, Icy Roads

From the City of Covington
 
When winter unleashes its misery and covers Covington streets with snow and ice, most people eye their morning commute or evening trip to the grocery with anxiety and dread.
 
But Charlie McCain can't wait to get out in it.
 
"I like it. It's one of my favorite things to do," McCain said. "I like a challenge."
 
Of course driving in the snow and ice IS McCain's job. He's a technician at the City of Covington's Public Works Department, where he's worked for 23 years, and winter storms can mean a 12-hour shift for him and the rest of the City's Snow & Ice Team.
 
Recently that team gathered for a group picture outside the dome that holds 1,800 tons of road salt near the Public Works garage. It was a light-hearted event designed to carry a reassuring message for Covington residents, Public Works Director Rick Davis said.
 
"We're ready for it. Here's our team that's going to make it all happen," Davis said. "We've got a full dome. Our trucks are tuned up. The plows are ready. And the salt spinners are calibrated."
 
In actuality, drivers with Covington's Snow & Ice Team have already been called out five times this season to treat roads. All have been relatively small "events" with - according to National Weather Service figures - unimpressive amounts of snow and ice.
 
But it doesn't take much to cause a wreck or make a hill impassable, Davis said, and even those small storms can mean long hours for drivers when most of the City is asleep.
 
The response on Nov. 15-16 was typical.
 
"We were called out about midnight and then worked all night," said Mark Ranson, a fleet mechanic who has been with the City for five years.
 
In all, 17 members of Covington's Snow and Ice Team worked from about 11 p.m. until 8 a.m. that night to prepare the City's streets for morning rush hour, accumulating 152 hours of overtime and using 57 tons of salt, Davis said.
 
Drivers say the job requires intense concentration, nerves of platinum, a deft touch, and core strength - whatever it takes to maneuver a dump truck weighed down with a plow and salt through what amounts to an obstacle course ... for hours on end.
 
"It's mentally taxing," Ranson said. "When you're in the truck, you have to monitor 360 degrees but you can see only 90. Especially in the tight quarters of the City, when there's lots of people, it can wear you out."
 
Most people think of City streets as flat, but that's not necessarily the case, especially in South Covington and on the west side.
 
'I remember my very first snow," Ranson said. "I didn't know there was a hill coming up (on this particular street), and I lost traction and wound up sliding all the way down the hill backward."
 
Luckily, he said, there was a flat area at the bottom of the hill and no cars were parked there.
 
McCain said he too - like pretty much every snow truck driver - has had numerous such incidents in his many years of plowing Covington's streets, but after a while all "even the big storms run together."
 
"There's no substitute for experience," he said. "The only way you learn is to get out there and drive."
 
The process
 
Davis said Covington has 32 men and women on its Snow & Ice Team, and they're evenly split into "A" and "B" teams that alternate 12-hour shifts. The City has three sizes of trucks: large Kenworth T350 dump trucks, Ford F550 small dump trucks, and Ford F350 pickups.
 
The response to each storm is overseen by a "snow commander," a position filled by one of the division supervisors on a rotating basis that changes every two weeks.
 
A lot of factors go into planning and implementing Covington's response, with decisions made about when to call in the drivers, how many to call in, whether to pre-treat the roads, where to focus the response, and whether to plow or spread salt.
 
"It's definitely not an exact science with precise formulas," Davis said.
 
Factors include things like the air temperature; whether the accumulation is expected to be ice or snow, and how much of each and what order they will fall; the expected duration of the storm; whether the ground was warm or frozen at the start of the storm; and the timing of traffic patterns.
 
The commanders monitor weather-related websites and talk regularly with colleagues from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and public works officials from Kenton County and nearby cities, Davis said.
 
Some storms - particularly the bad ones - are known about well in advance, but Covington often has to hurriedly call up drivers in response to quick "pop-up" storms that give the streets a light yet still potentially dangerous coating of ice and/or snow, Davis said.
 
"It happens more often than you think," he said.
 
If forecasts call for significant accumulations, the City might pre-treat roads with a salt brine spray because it's cheaper than salt and keeps the snow from sticking. It takes about five or six hours to pre-treat what's called "impact areas" - hills, sharp curves, and bridges, he said.
 
And during the storm itself, priority is given to major arteries and streets near schools, hospitals and other sensitive areas. The next level of priority includes minor collector streets that serve a single subdivision and side streets. Within 24 hours of the end of a storm, even alleys should be cleared, he said.
 
To see where Covington streets fall on the priority scale for snow removal, see these two maps on the City website, NORTH and SOUTH.
 
How residents can help
 
Davis said there are many things that Covington residents can do to make the Snow and Ice Team's response safer and more efficient:
  • Don't plow or shovel driveways and sidewalks into the street.
  • Park as close to the curb as you can, especially on narrow streets.
  • Try not to park at the bottom of a steep hill.
  • Stay clear of plow trucks and don't tailgate them.
  • Report problem areas, but remember that some of the larger roads in Covington are actually state routes maintained by the Commonwealth. 
Some cities have designated Snow Emergency Plans that prohibit parking on many streets during storms, but Davis said he doesn't remember Covington ever making such a declaration in his time in Public Works, given many residents don't have driveways and many businesses don't have off-street parking.
 
"We just get out there and get the job done as fast and efficiently as we can," he said. "We have a good team of drivers."
 
In early November, Public Works gathered its Snow & Ice Team for a safety session, a refresher course on plows and other winter-related equipment, and "Snow-deo," the rodeo-style event in which drivers competed on an obstacle course.
 
Public Works takes this mission seriously, Davis said.
 
"This is the single-most important job we do from November to April - basically during these entire six months," he said. "We're not just ensuring safe commutes and trips for our residents but, more importantly, we're also clearing the streets for our emergency responders - our police, ambulances and fire trucks. Without us, they couldn't get to where they need to be."
 
By the numbers:
 
  • 270 - Lane miles of roads and streets in Covington
  • 1,800 - Tons of road salt in Covington's dome on Boron Drive.
  • 400 - Pounds of salt used per mile under the typical calibration of a salt "spinner."
  • 21 - Number of times Covington Public Works drivers were called out last winter to treat roads.
  • 1,400 - Number of employee hours logged last winter on snow/ice duty.
  • 16 - Number of plow trucks in Covington's fleet.
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