The call can come at any time.
“You know the phone is going to ring, you just don’t know when,” Scott Garrelts said.
“You try to rest up, but the anticipation is crazy,” Roger Haeffner added. “You sit around waiting and waiting.”
The call is from their supervisor at the Sycamore Street Division, Dave Ray, informing them it’s time to plow. While most people are safe at home in a snowstorm, they are out at all hours clearing streets and roads.
With 52 inches of snow so far this season, Ray said his department has handled 45 calls, including 10 straight weekends.
The major differences between this winter and the past, said Mark Espy, street operations director in DeKalb, are the repetitive nature of the snows, the amount of salt they’ve had to use and the cold temperatures that have resulted in several water main breaks.
When a storm strikes at night or on weekends, Haeffner, a 30-year veteran of the department, said the police call Ray, who then decides when to contact the men.
“My guys have done an outstanding job making sure they get plenty of rest and eat right,” Ray said. “They are on call 24/7. Even if there’s a threat of snow, you don’t get a deep sleep because you’re anticipating that dang call.”
“It wears on you,” Garrelts said.
“My staff has been performing consistently well with long hours and no time to spend with their families,” Espy said.
“We take every storm as it comes,” DeKalb County Public Works Superintendent Nathan Schwartz said.
Road crews follow weather reports for more than just snowfall totals; wind speed and direction often determine how and when salt is spread. Salt won’t help to clear a road that is drifted over with blowing snow.
“It’s not as simple as go out there and drive a truck,” Schwartz said. “You have to be mutli-tasking and use your head.”
Depending on the storm, Haeffner said drivers start on the main roads, then do secondary streets. It can be frustrating, he said, to start plowing knowing full well they’ll have to plow the same area again in a couple of hours.
“If it’s snowing at night, blowing and drifting, we may be out until 9 at night,” Schwartz said. Drivers then return early the next morning to get the roads cleared before the morning commute. Fighting the snow for long periods of time, he said, can result in snow blindness for drivers who are usually very “wired” when they finish.
“It can make for some very long days,” he said. “So we really appreciate when Mother Nature gives us a break and gives the guys a chance to recuperate.”
Schwartz said his department has had to use “an above average amount of salt compared to a more recent January.” Since his yearly budget runs from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, it’s too early to determine how much impact it will have financially.
Ray said Sycamore has already used 1,700 tons of salt. Although they have more available, he said they’re having trouble getting new shipments because barges are stuck on frozen rivers.
Thanks to an effort started several weeks ago to focus on high-traffic areas, Espy said DeKalb has enough salt left to manage any additional snow. Since he can’t tell how bad a winter will be, Espy always orders the same 3,500 tons of salt every year.
When a storm is on the way, Schwartz said his department will plow county roads as far off the shoulders as possible to make room for the new snow and prevent drifting. DeKalb County has 13 trucks for 12 routes, covering 190 miles of county roads.
Once a storm passes, cleanup begins.
“It’s a non-stop process,” Ray said.
Garrelts said he’s going on vacation when spring finally arrives.
“You don’t have to go anywhere,” Haeffner, who once plowed snow for 50 hours in one two-day stretch, added. “You can stay home. You don’t just don’t have to plow snow.”
“I’ve been looking forward to spring since Dec. 6,” Espy said.