Winter Is Coming
Stand in the late May sunshine on a side street off Erie Boulevard and ask a passer by to list what makes Syracuse a livable city. You’ll likely hear things like ‘farm to table restaurants’ and ‘easy commutes.’ But ask that same question in the dead of winter, and any reasonable list would have to include ‘efficient snow removal.’ The word ‘amazing’ might even apply.
It’s easy to forget how distressing snow and ice can be, but this past winter gave us a stark reminder. Over a three-week stretch, from late January to mid February, snow and ice storms that might have forced Central New York to release students early, effectively froze Atlanta, Charlotte and Raliegh. Hundreds of cars were abandoned on highways, electrical grids collapsed and services shut down.
CNY is one of the snowiest regions in the country, and in the Salt City, salt is the key ingredient in keeping traffic and commerce cooking through the winter. That salt is spread by a hyper eficient and dedicated workforce equipped to handle the tons of snow and ice that blankets the northeast every winter. These people keep CNY’s cities and towns open for business year round.
On a tour of the Department of Public Works storage area and offices on Canal Street, Tom Rubada, a staff member of the City of Syracuse DPW, pauses in front of the near empty salt storage shed. The salt that normally fills the facility comes from a Cargill mine in Tompkins county. “We used about 30,000 tons of salt this year,” he says matter-of-factly.
The city, county and state all use up-to-date machinery and equipment to clear the city streets. “Although we’ve had this equipment for quite some time, the trucks can navigate through the worst of streets. We have different sizes of trucks for different streets. These have been quite efficient over the years. We service them quite often during the season,” says Rubada. “We replace the scraper edges (the portion of a street plow that contacts the roadway) regularly” he adds. That designed modularity extends the life of the plow wing for decades giving the city an economical public works sector.
That intelligent systems thinking extends to the DPW’s administrative structure. Part of what dooms the southern states is that they haven’t figured out how to staff and equip their public works departments to deal with climate extremes. Syracuse and the other CNY cities have extreme climate change well handled.
Rubado explains that “When winter comes, the city combines two departments—street cleaning and street repair—into snow removal.” That approach allows Syracuse to quickly switch modes as the weather dictates.
“When winter comes, the city combines two departments—street cleaning and street repair—into snow removal.” –Tom Rubado
Thomas Simone, first deputy commissioner of the DPW, says the objective is to have 24-hour coverage of snow removal. “We usually work till the snow event is over, even if it includes the weekends. We don’t really have the weekends off and we intend to get as much work done as possible. We try to clear the 25 square mile city within 24 hours,” says Simone.
If the Deputy has a complaint its that the efforts of people like Rubado usually go unnoticed. “These are the men who keep the city functioning on so many levels, and that’s what I would love to highlight through our operations. Sometimes it gets difficult. On some days the snow rapidly falls and we have to keep up with the clearing operations 24/7. But we come pretty close to doing a pretty good job for all the challenges we overcome,” he adds.
Rubada says that he enjoys his work even on the harsh days of snow, but what comes across a major challenge is the illegal parking of the vehicles. “Especially in the University area,” he laughs referring to SU. “We call it Hell’s kitchen” he says with a laugh. “That’s because cars are often parked illegally and sometimes in a haphazard manner. That is the biggest peeve for us out here at DPW.”
Even without obstacles, the snow removal process can be stressful as the people in the southern US discovered this past winter. CNY plow drivers of aren’t immune to that stress. “When it snows continuously our sole aim is to clear the roads and keep them running for everyone. The drivers sometimes have a hard time managing shifts, but the team work keeps us going. Everyone’s so professional, so we don’t really feel the mental stress apart from the exhaustion. Of course, the good breaks help us bounce back,” he says.
There’s no clearer sign of the profesionalism of the DPW team than their approach to the long hours in the plow trucks. When those hours begin in the pre-dawn winter the drivers see a very different city. “I love working on the night shifts. The city is calm and peaceful at that time. It’s a beautiful place.”