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New England State DOTs Hire Influx of Contractors to Dig Out of Snowstorm Nemo

The worst snowstorm to hit the area in 40 years has caused a spike in demand.

Tue March 26, 2013 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

They didn’t have to find Nemo. Nemo found them.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of contractors were temporarily hired by state DOTs and municipalities as private vendors in the states of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, among other New England states, to dig out from the worst single snowstorm to hit the area in 40 years.

During the 30 or so hours that the storm raged over Feb. 8 and 9, pay loaders, dump trucks, front loaders and other snow-clearing vehicles were commandeered by the hardest-hit cities and states on temporary contracts to remove the snow that in some areas came in record-breaking amounts.

Governors imposed driving bans for two days and the only vehicles allowed on roads were those sporting plows. Commuter traffic was ordered stalled in order that the plows and other heavy iron could drive snow off highways to clear paths for emergency vehicles, police, fire, ambulance and especially power companies to restore energy to hundreds of thousands of New Englanders who lost it; some — like in Marion, Mass. and the Cape — for up to six days.

DOTS and state governments were lauded, for the most part, for their plowing plans which worked quickly, due in large part to the hard work of the private vendors who were regular guys with plows.

40-Plus Inches of Snow

While thousands of New England towns and cities were buried, Hamden, Conn., was one of the hardest hit in the blizzard of 2013, seeing an astonishing 40-plus inches of snow. Hamden also is the town Sweeney Excavation Inc. has been headquartered for 26-plus years. Sweeney was ready.

“Immediately following the storm, we placed four pay loaders with the town of Hamden and soon after dispatched two tri-axle dump trucks to assist with moving the snow from the streets to the parks throughout the town where we piled the snow,” said Bob Sweeney, owner of Sweeney Excavation. “These locations became known as snow farms.”

Hamden collectively hired 30 to 40 pay loaders from private contractors and received additional assistance from the National Guard.

“The first task after the storm was to simply open all roads in town to allow two-way traffic. Once done, the roads were then opened up from curb to curb, which exposed drainage structures and allowed melting snow to run off into drainage systems,” added Sweeney. “Where snow needed to be removed to accomplish this, it was loaded onto dump trucks and taken to the snow farms.

“Our loaders and trucks worked 24-hour cycles starting on Feb. 11 and ending at noon on Feb. 17. Collectively, we worked approximately 1,000-man hours in that time span not including the hours worked by managers, fuelers and mechanics,” said Sweeney.

The largest challenges vendors like Sweeney faced included getting operators plugged into shifts to allow for 24-hour, round-the-clock service to which private vendors are not accustomed.

“We kept the loaders out moving on the roads. Each new crew of operators reported to our shop, we drove those operators to the pay loaders to swap out with the previous shift and then drove that off-duty crew back to our shop. We had staff to cycle to every loader to deliver fuel and grease every eight hours,” he said. “Each loader had three eight-hour shifts; therefore, we had 12 operators for four pay loaders. Tri-axles worked two 12-hour shifts, so we had four drivers for two dump trucks. We had one supervisor and one mechanic/fueler on every eight-hour shift. Therefore, it took 22 people to complete one 24-hour day,” he added.

Other Blizzard Challenges

Communication also was a challenge. Officials in towns like Hamden were trying to direct this large workforce to all sections of their communities, but they were not able to easily speak with the 40 private pay loader operators. Even more challenging was that a large majority of Hamden’s hired contractors were from out of town and even out of state.

“These operators did not know the streets or how to get [to] the streets at which they were needed,” said Sweeney.

After some initial clearing to get major roads opened, the town made a decision to send two loaders with each of their plow trucks to the specified routes that the local plow truck drivers knew very well. Plow truck drivers would then direct the loaders under their supervision. They were in constant communication with the Hamden Public Works main office to monitor progress, setbacks and challenges.

“Personally, I found this to be a great solution to the problems the town was facing at that point. Hamden has some great representation in Public Works, employees such as Mike Siciliano, David Lockery and Joe Callella. These three supervisors, as well as the countless town-employed drivers and operators, really made a Herculean effort and rose to the challenges in front of them, during some extremely difficult and stressful moments,” said Sweeney.

Little Rhody, Big Storm

Rhode Island employed 400 private vendors during Nemo, joining 150 state employees working the roads and highways. The state used 100 DOT plow trucks, five loaders and other vehicles at 21 snow stockpile sites that were opened to accommodate the untold tons of cleared snow.

The stockpiles were located in the state’s seven maintenance districts — Northwest, Providence, Bristol, Newport, Kent, Washington North and Washington South.

“There were other vendors [hired], also,” said Heidi Gudmunson of the RIDOT Communications division. “We had a heavy tow plan in place, meaning four tractor trailer-sized tow trucks [otherwise known as heavy wreckers] were positioned around the state readily available to help, as needed. We also had tree trimming vendors mobilized throughout the storm, to clear the way for plows etc., as necessary.

“The state DOT also had four front-end loaders to help dig out emergency shelters, park and ride [bus stops], highway drifts, etc.,” added Gudmunson.

Though the smallest state in the nation, RIDOT deployed some 3,300 tons (2,994 t) of sand, along with 15,000 tons (13,608 t) of salt on the approximately 1,100 linear mi. (1,770 km) or 3,300 lane mi. (5,310 km) of highways that were maintained during Nemo.

The traffic-free roads, mandated by Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, made the difference.

“The highway restrictions imposed by the Governor helped, as it enabled our plows get around during the height of the storm without the obstacles of passenger vehicles and trucks,” Gudmunson said. “Other technologies, such as the salt brine we used, enabled us to keep the roads cleared faster, as we didn’t have snow and ice bonding to the highways. In addition, having access to the larger equipment certainly helped as this was an extremely powerful storm, with huge amounts of snow that needed to be moved in order to keep our highways clear.”

When asked for a list of vendors, or any that deserved special mention, RIDOT instead praised the collective.

“Certainly being able to supplement the RIDOT crews with private vendors was an important part of our overall success in this storm. As you can imagine, with such a large group of vendors we don’t want to leave anyone out. They all pitched in and responded to the call when needed,” said Joseph Baker, administrator of highways and bridges at RIDOT.

“The most important thing I can tell you, however, is that the pride and hard work of our maintenance employees should be commended,” added Gudmunson. “They gave it their all to keep up with the storm and keep us safe. They are truly unsung heroes.”

In Massachusetts the Call Went Out

In Massachusetts, when a blizzard or major storm hits, a call goes out for assistance from MassDOT.

“Typically,” said Michael Verseckes, head of MassDOT’s communications office, “Private contractors have approximately an hour and 15 minutes to respond. Most respond within a much shorter timeframe than that.”

“Between 10 p.m. on Feb. 8 and 4 a.m. on Feb. 9, MassDOT had approximately 3,625 pieces of equipment deployed around the state. MassDOT has roughly 400 pieces of equipment in-house, and access to 4,000 pieces of hired equipment,” Verseckes added.

Statewide, MassDOT is responsible for more than 3,000 mi. (4,828 km) of roadway, translating into 15,200 lane mi. (24,462 km).

“This winter, there have been 12 other storms — most outside of the Boston area — that have required significant amounts of coordination and effort to clear roads,” said Verseckes. “Our snow fighting efforts rely heavily on effective communications, and during storms that is managed in our Highway Operations Center (HOC) in South Boston.”

HOC staff has access to more than 850 roadway and security cameras to detect and monitor traffic conditions and crashes. In instances of heavy traffic congestion or impending weather, the HOC can program approximately 400 message boards around the Commonwealth to inform or warn drivers of hazards that are specific to one region or is applicable statewide.

“A travel ban was implemented that was an effective means to drive home the point that the storm of Feb. 8 and 9 was serious. It also helped remind folks that we were going to have a continuous around-the-clock effort to keep up with the accumulation, which would be improved by having the roads clear of most other vehicular traffic,” said Verseckes.

“Subsequent to Feb. 8, we had crews out around the state continuing to clear road shoulders and breakdown lanes, and in some cases, going over the right travel lanes where needed. We had personnel addressing areas where the snow melt [caused by subsequent rain] may have turned to ice overnight — with a particular focus on our on-and-off-ramps,” said Verseckes.

The travel ban in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island excluded public safety vehicles and workers, including contract personnel, public works vehicles, contracted vendor vehicles, government officials, utility company vehicles, health care workers and the news media.

Early Sign Ups for Vendors

In Rhode Island and some other states, vendors get extra bonuses for so-called “green” equipment and accessories which improve state fuel costs. They also get an early sign-up bonus, if their equipment completes the state registration process by Oct. 26 in preparation for winter storms.

Rhode Island also is innovative in another way, using special road salt brine that has greatly improved how state roads are treated both before and after snowstorms.

This brine, which is much stronger that traditional sand or salt mixtures, has allowed the budget-strapped state to cut back on spreading sand to reduce snow and ice on its 1,100 mi. of roads.

During Nemo, and other potent storms, the salt brine was applied two days before the storm, leaving a chalky coat that bonds with the roadway after the water evaporates. Sand reduction also means less clogging of storm drains and less sediment in rivers and streams.

It is only a pre-treatment. Traditional salt and sand are still applied in storms.

Such innovations speak to the dilemmas of time and cost facing municipalities when a storm like Nemo shuts them down with no power or travel for days.

“Our challenges [plowing roads] were small compared to that of the leaders of the town of Hamden as well as many other municipalities who had similar challenges,” said Sweeney. “It was eye opening to spend some time observing the challenges from the inside of this response effort and, at the same time, listening to a percentage of the public criticizing the efforts of these people trying to help them.

“Some of these people criticized through television and newspaper and websites; some people griped to all that would listen in the local coffee shops and some people took their frustrations out on the actual equipment operators as they cleared snow in front of their homes,” he added. “As a private contractor, I am not accustomed to this uneducated and uninformed criticism. It was not all negative and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge a very large percentage of wonderful residents who were quite positive along the routes and were quick to provide our operators with food, a hot cup of coffee and a kind word or a thank you along the way.”

Sweeney added, “As a lifelong resident of the town of Hamden, I would like to say it was a pleasure to work with this group, and congratulations to all involved, from the Mayor, to the Public Works Department to the fire department to the police department on getting the cleanup completed. Great job to all.”

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