takes a ride in a snowplow in Colonie
Waking at 2 a.m. and then working for the next 14 hours is not a regular workday for most, but it is the life of a snow plow driver.
When I arrived on a recent January morning to ride along on one of the plows, the employees of the Colonie Division of Highway Department had been working since 3 a.m. The town had seen about 8 inches of snow fall overnight, but it’s the Highway Department’s job to make sure residents can drive on the 318 miles of road in town no matter what the Northeast winters dish out.
It’s a coastal storm, Ryan Buff, one of the four supervisors of the operation, said. `The eye of the storm may have passed us but other snow might be wrapping around towards us.`
Ready to roll
The driver I will be riding along with, Ed, who asked that his last name not be revealed, said piloting the massive trucks is actually a simple job, and it’s one that, after 20 plus years, can seem monotonous. However, he said, he could understand that if you’re new to it, the work could appear to be interesting.
`At the end of the day, it’s just like anything else,` he said. `Either you have a knack for it or you don’t.`
As we get ready to head out in the plow, my first obstacle is getting into the passenger side of the vehicle. At 8 a.m., Ed had already made a few trips through his route, so the wing plow was covered in snow. I have to climb over the plow, being sure not to slip and hit my head on the metal stairs or the plow itself, and then grab a rail and pull myself up on to the snow covered steps.
During the ride, I sit in the wingman’s seat. A wingman makes sure the driver is aware of objects up ahead, whether it be a car, a mailbox or a fence on the side of the road. Because Ed and I are doing some of the main roads, I do not have to act as wingman on this trip.
`With neighborhoods and parked cars is when a wingman is needed,` Ed said.
Our route consists of plowing Wade Road, then taking a left on Sicker Road, which runs along the Albany International Airport, turning right onto Runway Road and then back down Sicker.
The seat isn’t uncomfortable, but Ed warns that if you sit in the wingman’s chair for too many hours it can become a drag. The loud revving of the engine, the scraping of the plow along the road and the tedium of staring at the wing-plow can start to get to you.
But for the time being, watching massive amounts of snow being moved to the side of the road is pretty fascinating.
Ed is working the plows, pulling a lever to lift up the wing since the area we are driving over has already been taken care of. He said moving those levers keeps you focused, along with a constant watch for manholes. Going over one, Ed said, will really wake you up.
Years ago, Ed said, drivers had to first act as wingmen for a few runs before being handed the reins. But driving the plow doesn’t take any special skill or a lot of training, he said; it all depends on the person.
A day in the life
Ed said that what really wears out a plow driver are the 20- to 30-hour storms.
`I stop for coffee quite a bit,` Ed said. `Go in after each route is done and spend a half hour in Stewart’s. That seat’s gonna get to you.`
Buff said he tries to get his drivers in for a four- or five-hour nap throughout the busy days. But the job isn’t done until the snow stops falling, the snow is pushed back up to the mailboxes and the crews have finished with salting.
`If it’s slushy it’s easy, but if it’s icy then it takes a lot longer,` Ed said. `There’s no one formula to fit every storm.`
With the coastal storm that flared up on this day, the hope was that it would start slowing down around noon, allowing the drivers to be done for the day around 4 p.m. If there was still some work to be done, Ed said, his supervisors might send the early crew home and bring in the night-shift guys.
Before the plowing even begins, the town initially lays down salt, said Buff. For this storm, 1,000 tons of salt might be used, costing the department $52,000.
Tom Romano, one of the other supervisors at the Highway Department, said the job isn’t done until 80 percent of the road is bare. After a full day of plowing, the collective number of miles covered could range between 800 to 1,000 miles.
`You might be through a route three times,` he said. `You basically keep going, especially if you’re getting an inch and a half an hour.`
The following day’s objective, Buff said, will be removing snow from the cul-de-sacs and the sidewalks with four different sidewalk machines that take care of 50-60 miles of sidewalk.
`We can usually get through all of the sidewalks in 10, maybe 12 hours,` Buff said. `It depends on the size of the storm.`
When mishaps happen
If the storm is a light one, then the snow is much easier to plow, Romano said, but when it’s heavier, then drivers might experience damage to their trucks, such as broken hydraulic and transmission lines. If the snow has frozen over, the wing on the truck can even break off if the driver hits an icy snow bank.
Luckily, this storm brought what Romano was calling the `nice fluffy stuff.`
This doesn’t mean there aren’t other mishaps along the way, though.
Just as Ed finishes his route, a driver says over the radio he just hit a fence on 49 Arcadia Ave. The wing of the plow took out three sections of the white picket fence and opened it up.
`Do I make a report?` he said over the radio.
Ed says to himself, `Yes.`
The person on the other end tells him not to and that the department will deal with it. Ed informs me this means he and his crew will go over and fix the fence, one of the many things he does to keep busy when he’s not plowing.
He said filing a report, though, would just hold up the process, leading to less productivity.
`If we stopped every time we hit a mailbox, we’d never get anything done,` he said.
Usually the plows will take out around 25 mailboxes a storm, and workers will replace them. Buff said if residents don’t like the replacement mailboxes, the town will reimburse them up to $30 for a new one.
`You usually pay around $20 for a standard one,` he said. `If they want a fancy one they’ll take a voucher and buy one.`
Romano said since the streets in Colonie are 36 inches wide, there is a lot more pavement to cover than other municipalities, making it a bit easier for drivers to hit the mailboxes. Romano added that drivers rarely hit cars.
That track record is expected to improve even more after the department’s newly purchased trucks are put on the road. Currently in the garage are trucks with laser technology installed for more accurate plowing and video cameras built in on the side of the truck where the wing is, as well as the back of the truck. A monitor has been added to the inside of the truck so the driver can monitor the wing as well as what is behind the plow, but a wingman will still be needed.
Such is the life of the snow plow driver ` the long hours, the frequent cups of coffee and hundreds of miles driven can sometimes get to them. But the first thing Buff says when I get back from my trip with Ed is, `It’s neat, huh?`