At 6:09 a.m. on New Year’s Day, the only sound I could hear besides the tapping of my fingers against the keys was the scraping of snowplows.
Fresh snow blanketed the valley and, according to the weather warning, much more was on the way. It made me wonder if there are holidays for snow removal crews. Those who pray for snow days probably never consider the people who have to clean up all that famous Utah powder.
In a conversation with Charles Darnell, associate vice president for facilities at Utah State University, he said that keeping things clear every day is part of the master plan. Since 2011, he has been at the helm of snow removal at Utah State and has tried to streamline the process. There is a science to keeping roads and sidewalks clean.
To start with, Darnell and his associates identified a “high priority route” on campus. The route can be seen on the university’s website and it connects disabled access to most of the buildings. Darnell said it is especially key to keep those routes clear so those who may need to use wheelchairs, walkers or scooters don’t have to tangle with heavy snow, mud or debris. “We try to keep those particular sidewalks as clear as possible. ... In a bad storm situation, we might have to condense to a crew that would just focus on that route.”
Darnell’s team pretreats the high priority route with snow-melting solutions or salts. “Most storms that we have, we are able to do all of campus before most people notice. If we pretreat, we can get to bare concrete faster,” Darnell said. “Once people start arriving for classes, it gets a lot harder to keep things clear.”
When possible, crews try to get snow removed by 7 a.m., before there is too much traffic. Snow removal in parking areas becomes astronomically more challenging when those lots are full of vehicles. Often, crews have to battle not only the weather, but also the growing number of people using roads and walkways.
But just how early is too early to start fighting the snow? Darnell said his crews are called in when one inch of snow has accumulated, no matter the time of day or night.
“What we’ll do is look at forecasts to determine what response is needed,” Darnell said. “Our supervisor over heavy equipment will call public safety, and he also checks the campus cameras and finds out what conditions are on campus.” Utah State coordinates snow removal efforts with Cache County and Logan city officials as well.
Preventing large snow build up is key, Darnell said. If crews can keep up with the snow, it’s much easier than trying to catch up later. But there are times when snowfall is simply too heavy to handle quickly. “When it’s dumping four inches per hour, you just have to do your best and catch up when you can,” Darnell said. “But we try to get out ahead of the storms. When it was blowing 50 mph with a big accumulation expected like happened this past week, our crew came out at midnight and started working.”
With ongoing storms, it can be challenging to give crews time to rest. “We try to limit the crew to a 12-hour shift,” Darnell said. Most storms blow out in that amount of time, but not all. “In the eight years I have been here, we haven’t had anything that was a 24-hour problem, but we have come close.”
Just in case, Darnell recruits help from employees who have lighter duties in the winter. “We have a volunteer crew that will come out and help us if things continue to stay bad,” he said. “We have never reached a point that we haven’t had enough capacity to catch up or keep up.”
Recalling a school closure from my own college days in 2002, I asked how much snow it would take to shut down the university? Darnell said he doesn’t see that as an option. “As far as I know, since 2011 we haven’t had a closure that I can recall — I think I would remember,” Darnell said. “It is such a rare occurrence, it’s something the president of the university would have to authorize.”
Darnell said he does feel like his department’s efforts are worthwhile. “I think people appreciate what we do to keep things running,” he said. “We try to be responsive and it has been a double edged sword. When you do a better job, people get used to that higher standard, and then you get complaints. But really, those complaints tell us expectations have risen and we are doing better.”
I asked Darnell if he thought there was anything readers ought to know about his crew and their work.
“When people understand we have crews that work at midnight so campus is clear by 7 a.m., I think they appreciate that a lot,” he said. “I think the only word of advice is when you have a lot of snow, slow down, be a little bit more courteous with everyone. Realize people are trying to do a good job, and
be patient with us, and we will get you caught up sooner or later.”
When I went to campus this morning at 5:56, the crews were out pushing snow off parking lots again. Seems like the snow removal crew prefers getting things done sooner rather than later. Either way, I won’t stop praying for snow. Cache Valley’s capable facilities crews are prepared to keep things running every day of the year, no matter what Mother Nature decides.
Kate E Anderson is a mother of five living in North Logan. She can be reached at email@example.com