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The Reel Clarington: A day in the life of a snowplow operator

A snowplow clears snow and slush from a Clarington street

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Basia Radomski, Corporate Communications Manager

Have you ever wondered who braves the elements and dangerous road conditions to clear your streets during and after a snowstorm? What are the duties of snowplow operators? What are some of the challenges they face on a daily basis? Well, on a dark, snowy Tuesday morning, I bundled up for the day to find some answers.

I arrived at Clarington's Hampton Operations Centre, the headquarters of the Operations Division, at 7 a.m. ready to ride with some of Clarington's finest snowplow operators.

That day Environment Canada had issued a travel warning and Clarington's own weather service was calling for a storm with snow accumulations between 10 to 15 centimetres followed by periods of rain. The Municipality of Clarington uses a weather service that provides bulletins advising of weather conditions and weather patterns. Those are updated and sent out three times a day.

Snowplow Operator ToddFollowing a safety briefing with Clarington's Road Supervisor, I met Todd (pictured left), one of Clarington's 31 snowplow operators. The Municipality of Clarington is responsible for plowing 892 kilometres of roads, or around 1700 lane kilometres. Lane kilometres includes all lanes in both directions, as well as turning lanes. Clarington has a fleet of 45 vehicles, including large snowplows and smaller ones attached to trucks.

Todd has been operating a snowplow in Clarington for 22 years. He now handles a rural route that takes him about 50 kilometres up Liberty Street from Taunton Road to Regional Road 20 and back. The route ventures into some beautiful rural spots north of Haydon.

As we embarked on a long day of work, I was able to ask Todd lots of questions. Todd's rural route has its own set of unique challenges compared to an urban route. First of all, there's generally more snow in the rural areas, with whiteouts and snow drifts making it hard to see the road.

The snow makes it difficult to see the side of the road"We all drive our routes in the spring and fall, we memorize the layout of the roads and remember where they widen and narrow," explained Todd. This made sense as we drove down some remote roads where it was hard to tell where the road met the field and where the ditch began (see photo, right). Todd maintained a speed of between 30 to 40 kilometres per hour. "You don't want to go any faster than that, if you do and there's a lot of snow it's like hitting a brick wall, the plow will not be able to move through it and clear a path," explained Todd. In instances where the levels of snow are so high that the wing plow, or the side plow, cannot move the snow, operators will use a  technique called "benching" where they pile the snow to create layers and eventually a wall-like structure that looks like a snow tunnel when you're driving beside it.

As we made our way down Liberty Street, Todd left a salt/sand trail down the centre of the road. "This acts as a guide for vehicles so they know which side of the road they should stick to," said Todd. But it's not always that simple, several times during the course of the day, we had to stop and pullover as we passed vehicles clearly driving on our side of the road.

The other challenge, frustrated motorists who don't have the patience to wait for the snowplow to finish its job and turn off on a different road. "All too often people will try to pass the snowplow. That can be dangerous because the road may not be wide enough and the vehicle may get sucked into the ditch. The snowplow is also quite large reducing the visibility of any oncoming traffic," explained Todd. His advice for residents: Stay back, allow the snowplow to clear the route, it will eventually turn off and allow you to proceed.

Todd's route can also get a little mesmerizing, the falling snow and the blanketed fields can be hard to focus on. Over the years, Todd has learned how to keep his focus and not get caught up and hypnotized by his environment.

According to the Highway Traffic Act, a snowplow operator can work 13 hours. After an operator has reached that 13-hour on duty time, he/she cannot drive again in the same day and must have a minimum eight hours off duty before he/she can start another shift. This can be challenging during a full call-out for operators in a storm situation. So the Municipality must prioritize. The main routes, or the main arterial roads that are travelled most, will always be plowed first, followed by roads in subdivisions. Clarington's snowplow operators take shifts to ensure they are rested and can continue their duties.

Sometimes, equipment can fail during the most challenging of circumstances. "That's when we all step in," explained Todd. The operators will cover a neighbouring route, in case of an equipment malfunction or another emergency. "We prioritize, making sure the main roads on our assigned routes are plowed, and then we will step into the neighbouring route making sure those main roads are cleared and will make our way back and forth between routes as needed," explained Todd.

Snowplow Operator PaulAfter several hours driving in Clarington's rural area, I headed back to the Hampton Operations Centre to meet Paul (pictured right). Paul has been driving a snowplow in Clarington for 12 years. He handles an urban route covering the area along Highway 2 from Highway 57 across to Liberty Street and all the downtown subdivisions from Wellington Street to Baseline Road in Bowmanville. It's approximately a 27-kilometre route filled with many obstacles, including upset people, parked cars, and garbage bins.

Paul began by salting and clearing slush through the downtown core in Bowmanville. He faces many challenges including pedestrians eager to go about their business and oblivious to the large snowplow coming their way.

"People never move, they stand too close to the curb, it makes me really nervous, you have to constantly watch and pay attention," said Paul.

Vehicles on Doreen Crescent make it difficult for the plow to passAs we turned into one of the side streets, we found out that it was garbage day in Bowmanville; there were blue bins everywhere and some even on the road. But the largest challenge is parked cars. I witnessed this first-hand as we plowed Doreen Crescent three times. On our first pass, there were cars parked in both directions and another car overhanging past the driveway onto the road. Paul skilfully navigated the narrow pass, and was able to plow the rest of the road. Having avoided a large stretch of that road, means that Paul has to come back at a later time to ensure it is cleared. Luckily, as we passed, two residents saw the plow and jumped in to move their cars. We came in for a second pass on the same stretch and then a third one on our way back to ensure the opposite side was also cleared. "That's key for us. If residents refrain from parking on the roads, we can clear them twice as fast," explains Paul.

One common complaint Paul and other urban snowplow operators deal with is that they push snow into people's driveways. "Unfortunately, this cannot be avoided. We have to clear the snow. If I lifted the wing plow every time I passed a driveway, the road would not get cleared. What residents have to remember is this is my job, and at the end of the day I, too, go home to clear the snow that a plow has pushed into my driveway," said Paul.

It is important that residents understand that snow clearing is legislated; according to Ontario's Minimum Maintenance Standards for Municipal Highways, Clarington has a legal obligation to clear all roads from ice and snow.

Paul also faces a safety challenge that weighs heavily on his mind while he clears snow in residential courts. "People let their kids play in the 'snow mountains' gathered in the middle of the courts after a plow pushes the snow there to clear the path on the road. We never know if there are kids buried in there while we are plowing," explained Paul. His advice: For the safety of your children, don't let them play in the snow piles that are left in the middle of courts.

Snowplow Operator Paul refills his plow with saltAs we made our way through downtown Bowmanville, we ran out of salt and pre-wetting brine solution. This solution is released simultaneously with the salt and allows the material to start working immediately and assists in keeping the salt in the area it was applied to. Paul and I returned to Clarington's Depot 42, located on 178 Darlington-Clarke Townline Road, to refill our salt and brine mixture. Once we arrived, Paul switched vehicles and used a tractor to load the salt. We then pulled up to a pumping station, to fill up with the brine mixture. This is where we parted ways, Paul continued his shift clearing the roads and I headed back to the Municipal Administrative Centre, to write about my experience.

Clarington's Operations Department works hard year road maintaining Municipal roads and making sure all our residents and their families can travel safely. It is a tough job, with many challenges. It comes with a lot of criticism, but our staff return daily. For them, public safety comes first.

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