Developing an effective snow and ice control program

Bret Hodne
Superintendent of Public Works
City of West Des Moines, Iowa
Chair, APWA Winter Maintenance Subcommittee

Here are some scenarios for you: Your agency has a new manager with lofty goals; a policymaker gets some complaints from folks who are unhappy with the current level of service; there are unrealistic expectations by the public you serve; or, according to some folks, the agency next to you always seems to be doing a "better job." These are just a few of the reasons that you may be asked to review your snow and ice control program.

Developing an effective program for your agency can seem like an insurmountable task when you are faced with this project. However, the truth is that there are hundreds of others out there who have had to go through the same issue. Fortunately, many of these folks are APWA members who are going to be more than willing to share what practices they have implemented to enhance their programs.

In this article we will be reviewing six major areas that snow and ice control programs should focus on to be effective. Let's start with one of the most important.

  The annual "Snow Open House" in Greeley, Colorado

Media and public relations
Media and public relations is one aspect of a program that probably gets overlooked more than any other. It can be very easy to just go about the business of plowing snow, but if you are really looking to improve your agency's effectiveness, you need to be proactive in this area. To get started, it is usually helpful to send local media outlets information about your program that will help them to better understand what you are trying to accomplish. Many times, they will assist you by promoting this information with a positive "spin" to the general public.

Another helpful idea may be to invite them to your shop during a storm to take a ride in a plow truck or other piece of equipment. You may want to be selective about "who" you have them ride with, but it can give them a totally different perspective into the challenges with which your agency faces during a storm event.

Many departments are also sponsoring open houses or other types of outreach programs to educate the public about their programs. Websites can be another useful tool when you need to get information out to the public. Educating your customers can oftentimes lead to fewer phone calls and headaches to deal with during a storm event. Whatever you decide works best for your organization, being proactive can deliver big returns.

Personnel
Personnel management can be one of the more difficult areas that you may have to deal with. Sometimes trying to keep employees motivated when they know they are going to be facing long hours and extended periods of time away from home is a difficult task. Even though this can seem challenging at times, it is important to remember that your staff is the backbone of the operation and that they play a crucial part in the success and effectiveness of the program. It is critical that you pay attention to this part of your operation. Whether your agency can staff only one shift, or you have the luxury of being able to operate "round the clock," issues such as sleep deprivation, shift scheduling and call-in procedures are just a few of the issues that can have a significant effect on the attitude and performance of your employees.

Many agencies have seen dramatic improvements in the morale of their employees by allowing them to get involved in some of the decision-making process. In many instances, staff members will feel that they are more involved in the operation and take greater ownership in the program. While this type of employee involvement can be difficult for some managers to warm up to, the benefits of delegating not only some of the decisions, but also some of the responsibility, down to the staff level can have its rewards.

Training
Remember learning to ride your first bicycle? It probably took some practice before you became really good at it. Fighting snow and ice works pretty much the same way. With the numerous advancements in equipment and operational practices, it is unrealistic to expect employees to excel without first providing them with adequate training. Training is, however, one of those activities that all too often gets placed on the "back burner."

The Iowa Maintenance Training Expo: Joint training sponsored by APWA's Iowa Chapter, IDOT, ICEA, ISRMSA, and CTRE (Iowa's LTAP center)

The obstacle that typically is standing in the way is workload. In today's world most agencies have more than enough work to keep them busy. The thought of taking several hours out of the daily work schedule to learn about things that may not even happen for a couple of months is sometimes difficult to do. However, there needs to be a strong commitment to training if you are planning on having a topnotch program. Training not only gives operators the information which they need to conduct their jobs effectively, it also helps to gain "buy-in" when an agency is trying to introduce new equipment or practices. While training can take time away from other activities, it is well worth the investment and pays off greatly when winter does arrive.

If you do not have an active training program in your respective area or state, you may want to consider visiting with your LTAP center or other surrounding agencies to see if you can generate some interest. This can be an excellent way to provide training and networking opportunities for your employees.

Equipment
Fleet management and equipment! Now there are a couple of topics that usually stir up some interesting discussion. Managing a garage full of snow equipment is usually an interesting proposition. In most cases you have inherited what has been there for years, and implementing change can be a "difficult pill for some to swallow."

  Equipment versatility: Loader with front and wing plows

With the current budget challenges that most agencies are facing, securing the right equipment to do the job is a vital part of the long-term vision of your program. Everyone these days seems to be trying to "stretch the dollar." One method of doing this is by purchasing equipment that helps reduce staffing requirements. One example of this idea is the use of wing plows. In many instances, equipment with this type of plow can do almost the same amount of work as two units.

Another aspect that should be looked at when purchasing equipment is versatility. For example, many agencies are now using endloaders with multiple attachments for applications such as plowing and blowing snow, loading material and various other activities.

AVL/GPS is another tool that is also becoming more popular in the management of winter maintenance activities. This technology allows the user to track the location of the unit, and data such as spread rates and plow usage can also be monitored during a storm. Information obtained from these devices can be reviewed after the storm event to enhance future efficiency.

Equipment procurement is another opportune time to get your staff involved. Since they are the ones who are going to be operating the equipment, try to include them in discussions about what is needed. If the operators like what they see and feel that they played a part in the selection process, they usually will take ownership in the equipment. Most of the time this will lead to enhanced pride and increased longevity of the agency's investment.

Deicing materials
Which deicer is right for our agency? What should our application rate be? Should we implement an anti-icing program? What about inhibitors to prevent corrosion and protect the environment? These are the types of questions that will have to be answered when you are developing an effective program.

  Anti-icing unit applying liquid deicer product

When examining these issues, there are typically many things which have to be considered. Public perception is usually one of the major ones. If the public you serve has been happy with the level of service you have been offering, maybe you should stick close to what you have been doing. You should always keep in mind that once you start to raise the bar, expectation levels will follow, so tread carefully here. The current trend in the industry has been heading more toward the exclusive use of deicers to melt the snow and ice rather than spreading large amounts of sand for traction. Numerous studies have indicated that when looking at the "total" cost of abrasives, they may not have been as cheap as everyone once thought they were. Once again, you have to evaluate your respective circumstances and choose what is right for your agency.

The environment in which you are located can also have a big impact on material selection. Annual snowfall amounts, cost of materials, types of precipitation, average temperatures, and local environmental concerns and regulations all will play a big part in your decision-making process. One thing is for certain—there is not one product out on the market today that is ideal for everyone. The best thing that an agency can possess when making decisions about deicers is good information and data. It is out there, you just need to take the time to seek and sort it out.

Planning
Planning is another one of the areas where getting input from your staff can benefit you greatly. Who do you think has the best ideas with regards to some of the challenges that are going to be faced out in the field? If you guessed the person out in the plow, you are probably correct. Taking that "first step" can be a difficult one for an agency that has used more of a "top down" approach in the past. However, if you are really serious about being effective and having a topnotch program, it is an ideal way to get there.

Another excellent way to plan is to sit down with staff members after major storm events and at the end of the season. This gives an agency the chance to critique their program and seek out areas that may need enhancement.

Planning is involved with almost all of the other five areas that we have previously looked at. With the rate at which change sometimes occurs in a governmental operation, having the vision to plan ahead is critical in getting the tools you need to keep your operation where you want it to be. And last but not least, document your winter maintenance plan. It will help you demonstrate to the public that you do have a plan!

Closing thoughts
Having an effective snow and ice control program doesn't just happen; it takes a lot of hard work and planning. The thing to keep in mind is that you don't have to do it all yourself. Get your staff involved. They can be a tremendous asset in both the development and implementation of the program.

Also, take advantage of training and seek out information when you have the opportunity to do so. There are plenty of other agencies out there that are dealing with the same issues that you are. Whether you attend a national conference like APWA's North American Snow Conference or go to a more regional event, there is a lot to information to be gained when you network with others in the business. Most of the time they are more than willing to share with you what has and what hasn't always worked.

There are no magic solutions or secret kind of equipment out there that are going to make your agency look good. You probably just need to take the time to focus on some of the areas we have reviewed and put your "nose to the grindstone."

Bret Hodne was the General Session "Talk Show" facilitator at this year's North American Snow Conference. He can be reached at (515) 222-3480 or at bret.hodne@wdm-ia.com.

The CD-ROM Developing an Effective Snow and Ice Program covers the key aspects to running a topnotch snow and ice control program. The publication Guide for Snow and Ice Control presents a comprehensive overview of the components required for a successful snow and ice control program. Both can be ordered online at www.apwa.net/bookstore or call the Member Services Hotline at (800) 848-APWA, ext. 3560.