Winter maintenance management systems

Mohamed M. Alkoka, P.Eng.
President and CEO
BNorth Technologies Inc.
Ottawa, Ontario

The essence of any maintenance operation is communication. Winter road maintainers need to communicate at all levels to consistently ensure safe roads and stay within budget. Most people in this industry realize the importance of maintaining communication channels to deal with internal and external needs. However, timeline communication needs to be explored further. Communication for a winter road maintainer should include operational elements of the past, present, and the future.

In a winter maintenance operation, timeline communication is critical for success. A decision maker needs information about the past. The past is composed of known methodologies, established standards, best practices, and even local and legislated requirements. Keeping proper historical data about the operation will afford operation managers proper analysis of what had worked and what had not, which equipment type had more breakdowns, which contractor was consistently delayed, etc. Historical information is crucial to avoid repeating mistakes. It should also give operation managers realistic data for equipment, labor, material usages and expenditures.

Delving further into communication types, the operation manager should have information about potential future operational scenarios. What should be done if there is an ice storm expected in the next few hours? How many spreaders are required in extreme snow conditions? Which authority should be contacted first and what is their contact information in case of road closures? These are examples of operational data that would not only enhance the preparedness of maintenance officials, but also save a tremendous amount of resources when considered in advance.

Current (i.e., present) information about the operation as it unfolds has great value to operation managers and road supervisors. Such information needs to be integrated in the broader context of timeline communication. This is achieved by ensuring operators are on their routes, examining alternative outcomes and adjusting to achieve operational objectives, and ensuring that no member of the operation is working in isolation.

When the communication timelines are taken into account, a solid base is then established for a well-integrated winter road maintenance operation. This includes several components that evolve individually as well as collaboratively in order to achieve the desired integration. They can be summarized in three points:

  • First, road maintainers need access to quality road weather forecasts in order to mobilize their forces more precisely and more effectively. Road weather forecasts are also used to determine the type of road maintenance required in a particular situation. Thus, a reliable Road Weather Information System (RWIS) is one of the first components needed within a winter maintenance management system and a decision-making framework.

  • Second, information about resource utilization and scheduling must be in a manageable format. This means having information about operational plans, staff, supervisors, equipment, contractors, and service providers.

  • Third, data should be collected from vehicles during operations, such as salt and sand quantities used, material application rates, plow coverage areas, and route coverage (using GPS). Whether this information is available in real time, delayed real time or after the fact depends on the requirements, resources, and policies of the particular road authority. Nevertheless, the information needs to be available eventually, if not sooner.
  Typical winter maintenance management system

To successfully manage the components of a well-integrated maintenance operation, an agency or a road authority needs to establish a versatile management system that incorporates, at its heart, a winter maintenance command center also known as a "Snow Desk," which will serve as a framework for making decisions for the operation. By storing all the information at a central location, managers can perform essential data analysis to assess and modify operational decisions. Such a central location, physical or virtual, would house relevant operational information that would be made available to all operational decision makers, thus allowing them to make appropriate decisions.

The concept of a snow desk is not new, but needs to be taken into a new direction while utilizing available technologies for the defined purpose and the clear mandate of keeping roads open and safe throughout the winter season.

A winter maintenance command center or a snow desk does not have to be the classical, physical office where at least one person is available at all times to monitor and respond to the operation. Such command and control concepts can be achieved by having a virtual command and control center providing access to the same information that is housed in a central location. A command center is the materialization of a framework for operational decision-making.

When thinking of a command center one tends to think of a centralized operation, while a decentralized operation gives the impression of less integration, if at all. Looking at the positive side of things, centralization provides a one-stop access to information and a single point for decision-making, while decentralization allows for flexibility and customized reactions to local conditions. On the other hand, disadvantages are also evident. They can range from multiple and conflicting decisions within the same area to having only one person control the whole operation in multiple districts. Not to create a conflict between the two seemingly opposing approaches of centralization and decentralization of maintenance operation, the operation manager should consider a combined approach of "Centralized Decentralization." It may be best to use an example to explain this philosophy; for that, let's go to Europe.

In Denmark, the national road authority collaborated with cities and counties and jointly developed a winter maintenance management system used by road authorities at all levels to manage winter maintenance operations. Denmark's system was designed to be operated locally, e.g., in a county, where RWIS information is obtained from local stations and decisions are made for local roads. The system then collects information from the operation—data from spreaders, plows, contractors, as well as manual inputs if required. All the information is maintained in a database that is synchronized with a national database. This national database collects information from all local users and makes it available to all localities through the Internet and local networks. Thus, the whole country is using the same system (keeping in mind that Denmark is much smaller than Canada and the United States, but their approach is quite adaptable at provincial, state and county levels).

The winter maintenance management system created by the Ministry of Transportation of Denmark is a good model for North American winter maintenance professionals. Its management software captures the steps that any operation needs to undertake to become an effective winter maintenance management system. Such a system must efficiently combine all information and procedures needed by operators and decision makers in a single decision tool. Once the decision is made to mobilize equipment and staff to control snow and ice on area roads, the system must provide support allowing operators and supervisors to manage all operational activities.

Here's how it works. Agencies must create a comprehensive operational database prior to the start of the winter season. This basic data includes information such as supervisors and operators, their contact numbers and shift assignments. The database will also include information about contractors, prices, material types (salt, sand, liquids) and supply facilities. The system holds information about equipment, vehicles, spreaders, plows, their type, capacity, ownership, etc. The database includes shift schedules, operational routes, and reference routes as well as all related maps. All this is linked together in several reference plans for different operational scenarios, describing which operator is driving which vehicle on what route, and the time it should be called out.

Ideally, the management system should not bind an agency to any particular vendor of software, winter maintenance equipment or deicing material. It will allow entry of spreader performance data, for example, from any manufacturer and be able to handle a wide range of data inputs ranging from manual input to the fully-automated live data collection.

Changing work force, budget restriction, and higher public expectations warrant viewing the operation as a unified system that needs to be run in a closely coordinated fashion. Similar to the human body, the operation needs a center for reasoning, command, control and decision-making; it needs a brain. A management system with an intelligent command center can be the brain for your winter maintenance operation.

Mohamed M. Alkoka can be reached at (613) 596-0200 or at alkoka@bnorth.com.