First responders is the new term for the heroic public servants who, when everyone else is running away from a potentially disastrous situation, run toward it. Police trying to stop a criminal, firefighters rushing to a blaze, ambulance drivers trying to get help to someone with a medical emergency.
This winter, though, even the first responders can’t respond until the roads are cleared.
We (rightly) heap praise on those other first responders, but what do the city’s snowplow drivers get for their efforts? Sometimes, the finger.
Envision snow-plow driver Lawrence Carter, working a roadway on the city’s northeast side after one of the recent, crippling snowfalls.
A second truck, driven by Kirk Kneller, is behind him, plowing and salting half a lane to his right. That puts the other truck between the tracks Carter is making, and allows Carter to throw salt that doesn’t get bladed away by Kneller. It’s an efficient and effective way for them to clear a lane and a half of pavement at a time. All the rest of us just need to be calm, and we can be on our way smoothly and safely.
But one driver – it could be a man or woman, but let’s call this one Mr. Impatient – simply cannot wait another minute. As Carter recounts, Mr. I decides to pass Kneller.
They get between my truck and my buddy Kirk’s, Carter says. We’re throwing up a lot of snow.
Suddenly, Mr. Impatient is in the middle of mini-white-out as visibility drops to zero. But instead of slowing down, they go past us and speed ahead.
When that kind of thing happens, Carter and Kneller are not surprised to see the car spin out and careen off the uncleared roadway. In such cases, they call dispatch to get someone to rescue Mr. Impatient and continue their plowing.
One of the big stresses is that people just don’t want to slow down, Kneller says.
They see a truck moving steadily down the road and conclude that everything is fine, Carter explains. They want to get around you. They don’t realize that they’re in a 2,500-pound car and we’re in a 40,000-pound truck.
Indeed, a city plow truck is snow’s most formidable foe, with sophisticated electronic controls, a scraper underneath and a plow blade in front, and 9 tons of salt. Given time, it can get through almost anything. That’s all these drivers who respond to snow day or night, weekday or weekend, really need – time, and a little respect.
Citizens don’t understand what we do, Carter says. They’re usually in a rush. They want the streets clear right now.
Some people call, some complain on social media. Some shout at the drivers. And, they sometimes express themselves in sign language, Carter says wryly.
The Street Department director, Brad Baumgartner, sees the complaints, too, in phone calls and web comments and social media posts. And he knows the toll it takes on his staff of about 100 men and women. For the past few weeks, they’ve all been working long hours. They worked on the Martin Luther King holiday. They worked when the rest of the city was shut down two weeks earlier. Extra drivers were called in to work on New Year’s.
They feel it, and I think the whole staff feels it, Baumgartner says. It’s a matter of holding our head up and marching on.
The Public Works director, Bob Kennedy, stresses that the majority of people understand the importance of the job and are willing to help drivers by moving their parked cars if they’re asked.
Carter, salting Spy Run Avenue Thursday morning, agrees.
Some people come up and tell us, thanks.’ Around Christmas, they’ll give us snack bags – buckeyes, cookies and stuff like that, and say, Thanks for everything you’ve done for us.’
But administrators and drivers alike wish for more public understanding of the strategy and the limitations of street-clearing.
For instance, there are complaints when plows push snow onto driveways. But during the initial clearing operation, it’s impossible to both clear the streets and make the snow disappear. We don’t remove snow, Kennedy said, we just plow the snow. The city uses contractors to remove snow after the fact and cart it to city parks to melt.
Then there is the suspicion that, for whatever reason, our own street is absolutely the last one in the city to be plowed. For some unlucky neighborhood, of course, that will be true. But next time around, the folks who live there will win big.
For major snows, Kennedy explains, trucks within each of 18 city routes first clear major arteries, then move to secondary roads and finally to individual neighborhoods. Without the priority of clearing roadways such as Anthony Boulevard and Main Street, emergency personnel might not be able to get to someone who’s in danger or seriously ill.
When the trucks turn to the neighborhoods, they start from the beginning of a list and work down, Kennedy and Baumgartner said. But for the next snowfall, the lists are reversed.
People truly don’t realize what we do and how we do it, Carter says. They don’t understand that we do everything in a pattern. They don’t understand that we may not have plowed your street but we’re coming there.
This winter, Fort Wayne neighborhoods are getting more chances to land higher on the lists. As of last week, snowfall here was dead even with the total for the legendary Winter of 1982, Kennedy said. That spirit-crushing season, some of you may recall, also featured below-zero temperatures and ended when a whole winter of accumulated snow melted and morphed into a devastating flood. There’s no reason yet to haul out the sandbags this year. Thank God, some of it has melted already, Baumgartner says.
More important to Fort Wayne at this point, the department has much better plowing equipment than it did then.
A turning point came in January 1999, said to be the worst single snowstorm since the Blizzard of 1978. In 1999, Kennedy said, some of the plows weren’t strong enough to get through.
That was just a couple of years after Carter joined the team. They had old trucks, he recalled. They’ve upgraded all the equipment.
I love this truck, Carter says as he maneuvers the behemoth he drives for the city winter and summer. It has a really big motor. It can handle anything we get.
Those involved in clearing the city’s streets yearn for the people who depend on them to show one simple virtue: patience.
Just slow down, Carter advises. Know what you’re dealing with. Give yourself an extra 10, 20, 30 feet to stop. And, most definitely, pay attention to the other driver.
Ironically, as Winston Churchill might have put it, never did so many frustrated motorists owe so much to so few.
I don’t like to get out of a nice, warm bed at 3 o’clock in the morning, Kneller says. But that’s what we do.