Know before it snows
According to the city’s Public Works Department crews prioritize streets that:
are primary access routes to hospitals, schools, or the airport
serve major commercial corridors
lead into or out of the city
Above, some of the photos left with complaints on the Manchester Connect mobile app for the city’s Public Works Department following this week’s double snowstorm.
MANCHESTER, NH — December got off to a snowy start last week and put the city’s resources to the test. Our first significant snowstorm was a twofer, as in two storms in the span of 48 hours that felt like one. Despite the city’s Public Works Department being prepared, this one presented unique challenges.
Even with ample and accurate weather warning via Hometown Forecast Services, Sheppard said it was in many ways the perfect storm – and not in a good way.
There were many “new” plow operators on plow routes who usually get a light fluffy smaller storm to practice on, according to Public Works Director Kevin Sheppard.
“So when you get a storm of that duration it’s difficult all around, and not just Manchester. It definitely was tough all over. Getting the kind of storm you only get once a winter as the first storm of the year certainly didn’t help,” Sheppard said.
But manpower was also an issue.
“Once we get beyond 24 hours it’s difficult to staff winter operations,” Sheppard said Thursday.
For moving snow off city streets the city has more than 40 pieces of equipment at the ready and 80 city staff personnel working snow operations. But with back-to-back snowstorms, each one leaving upwards of 8 to 10 inches behind, crews who worked around the clock for the Sunday into Monday storm needed to rest, even though there was plenty more work to be done.
What they do in a “perfect storm” situation is bring in “spares,” which means other city staff including refuse collectors or other employees who are qualified to operate the equipment for eight- to 10-hour shifts behind the primary road crews, Sheppard said.
Just enough time to give the primary plow drivers a break while making sure at least the city’s main streets are open and safe. It’s a contingency plan that would have worked better if the city were fully staffed.
Entry-level workers hard to find
Right now there are 20 vacancies across the highway division, jobs that have been open for quite a while. With low unemployment rates, it’s been a hard-sell to fill entry-level jobs, which start at $13.25 per hour.
“We try to get people in and train them. We’re doing the best we can. We’ve got nine or ten temporary employees which we train to go full-time but not until we’re confident they will be good as full-time employees, and we require them to get a commercial driver’s license before they can go full time,” Sheppard says.
The city helps with that, providing training for CDL class B licenses.
The issue of pay rate even came up during Tuesday night’s aldermanic meeting, as the board discussed ways to improve snow removal services.
Sheppard said he went before the Human Resources committee prior to the aldermen’s meeting and they agreed to change the entry job description from “laborer” to “public service worker 1,” which raises the salary from $13.25 to $15 and change, Sheppard said, but also requires the CDLB license.
“That’s still a minimal salary for an employee with a CDL-B,” he acknowledged. “The salary is one issue but the economy is another. People have the opportunity to pick and choose jobs, and some may not see working on the back of a refuse truck as their first choice,” Sheppard said.
Tow truck shortage
On top of the shortage of plow drivers, the city had only eight tow trucks available.
“Tow companies are having trouble hiring as well,” Sheppard said. “We could use three or four times that many for the number of streets we have.”
Chief Carlo Capano reported to the Board of Aldermen that the traffic division towed only 88 cars – compared with the number towed during past “first snow events” (192 in December 2015) and an average of 185 per tow event reported in 2016.
Street buried in snow? There’s an app for that
Cars left in the wake of plows were among the 160 complaints left for the Public Works Department over the past four days via the city’s Manchester Connect mobile app, which populates in a section called “See Click Fix.”
Among the complaints, some posted as recently as Friday afternoon, include a need for side street towing on Bridge Street; better plowing and sanding request on Witt Avenue where residents reported “spinning their tires”; people getting stuck in the alley between Myrtle, Orange, Pine and Chestnut streets; no plows on Bell Street (third request) and lots of photo of cars parked during the Snow Emergency, which should have resulted in towing.
Sheppard is a fan of the mobile app and encourages the public to use it to report issues that are fed directly to the Department of Public Works — everything from no trash pick up or potholes to snow piles in need of plowing.
He said last week’s storm was a learning experience. His department is ready for the next storm, and he’s actively recruiting new drivers for plow duty.
“We offer full benefits – and coffee,” Sheppard says. “Even though we start people out as temps, there are benefits. That’s part of the whole plan. What we try to tell people is that public works is a career, not a stepping stone. You may start as a laborer but we have jobs all the way up to superintendents and loader operators, a great retirement and pension plan. It’s a lot to learn, but there are lots of long-term benefits to working for the city.”