Anatomy of a storm response

Photo 1: Backhoe operator Lonnie Johnson dumped salt into a dump truck driven by Mark Ranson and Doug Meyung late this morning.

Photo 2: From left, Chris Warneford, Steve Hedger, Bill Matteoli, Jason Roberts, James “J.J.” Johnson, John Purnell, and Brad Schwenke go over last-minute preparations.

Photo 3: “Snow commander” Steve Hedger checks driver assignments and routes.

Strategy, planning help Covington’s Snow & Ice Team keep streets safe

COVINGTON, Ky. – The “beep” of a backhoe in reverse. … Dump trucks lining up and inching forward, their engines idling. … The “bang” of a Case backhoe’s front bucket hitting the concrete. … The “swoosh” of cascading road salt.

The activity outside Covington’s salt dome at the southern end of Boron Drive this morning was a cacophony of sound and movement, overlaid with fumes and adrenaline, as Public Works prepared to spread salt on the city’s streets.

Given the darkening sky, the flurry of movement carried a sense of expectation, if not yet urgency.

… But to Covington’s Snow and Ice Team, it was just another step in a carefully orchestrated plan designed to keep roads passable and drivers safe – no matter what the weather brought. While that strategy was founded on careful planning, it also demanded flexibility.

“Now they’re calling for a half inch to an inch of snow – a little more than was predicted earlier, and it’s supposed to arrive a little earlier than predicted as well,” said Steve Hedger, supervisor of Covington’s Fleet Division, this morning. “But whatever happens, we’ll deal with it.”

Months in advance

For Hedger, who is acting as Covington’s “snow commander” these two weeks, the preparation for today’s response actually started last Friday morning, New Year’s Eve, when he first became aware of the pending snowstorm and began monitoring an array of televised weather reports, weather forecast websites, and weather apps.

On Monday of this week he sat down with Public Works Director Chris Warneford to talk, and on Wednesday morning, Warneford called a meeting of snow response managers to finalize preparation: Hedger, Bill Matteoli, Jason Roberts, Brad Schwenke, John Purnell, and James “J.J.” Johnson.

By then, of course, much had already been taken care of:

In September and October, all 15 trucks in Covington’s snow fleet – four big Freightliner and Kenworth T350 dump trucks, nine smaller Ford F550 dump trucks, and two Ford F350 pickup trucks with V-boxes – had been inspected and serviced. So too had been the backhoe(s) used to load the road salt.

Likewise, Fleet crews had temporarily mounted all the snow equipment on the trucks so it could be tested, serviced, re-calibrated, and repaired as needed. This included salt brine sprayers, plows, and salt “spinners.”

And of course road salt had been ordered.

On the walls of the conference room used for Wednesday’s meeting were other tools of the trade: a video screen showed a map and the latest forecast, maps pinned to a bulletin board detailing the 15 routes with colors showing Priority 1, 2 and 3 streets, and charts assigning drivers to those routes.

By then, of course, the drivers themselves had been prepared, with “rookies” and those new to specific routes getting any training they needed.

“Most of our crews have been doing this for years, and they really enjoy getting out there,” Hedger said.

Last-minute checks

Wednesday’s meeting was primarily for review and reassurance, Warneford said.

Nevertheless, a laundry list of issues and potential challenges was discussed: “hot spots” (problem areas) caused by melting and refreezing late into the night … communication with road crews from the state, the county, and neighboring cities … high-maintenance roads like Taylor Mill Hill and Hands Pike, which crossed jurisdictions … metal plates covering holes in the street being used for ongoing utility work … streets that are supposed to be privately maintained … breaks for drivers … and warnings to private contractors that in past years shoveled snow onto Covington’s already cleared streets.

In the history of snow and ice storms, today’s storm was expected to be minor and quick, especially compared to what’s happening to the south.

“But just because they’re calling for a small amount doesn’t mean the planning isn’t as intense and the response isn’t as comprehensive,” Warneford said.

That is especially true given the dip in temperatures.

“The snow will be over,” Roberts reminded everyone, “but there will be refreezing.”

Covington’s Snow & Ice Team is divided into two teams of 17 workers each, known as the “A” and “B” teams not for ability but convenience. In a large storm, they work in 12-hour shifts.

Hedger reported Wednesday morning that he would have drivers spray a water-and-salt brine on hills and overpasses later that day. Based on the most recent forecast, he planned to engage the “A” team to start pre-treating those areas and other problem streets with road salt around lunchtime Thursday (although that schedule was later moved up).

Only the salt “spinners” would be used, as plows are typically not used unless snow totals reached 1-2 inches or more.

“Sounds like we’re ready,” Warneford said, breaking up the meeting.

Said Matteoli, “it’s all hands on deck.”

By the numbers:

  • 270 – Lane miles of roads and streets in Covington.
  • 1,800 – Tons of road salt (capacity) in Covington’s dome on Boron Drive.
  • 100-400 – Pounds of salt used per mile under the typical calibration of a salt “spinner.”
  • 15 – Number of salt/plow trucks in Covington’s fleet.
  • 2½ -- “Scoops” of salt it takes to fill a small dump truck (large dump trucks take about 5 scoops).

How residents can help

  • 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, or – in a heavy storm where trucks are equipped with plows – close to an intersection on a narrow street.
  • 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 Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

# # #