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Snowplowing: priorities and patience

Snow plow drivers for the El Paso County Public Services Department and Colorado Department of Transportation are loading up for a long hard winter. A pre-planned priority system determines which roads are cleared first, regardless of the homeowners who immediately want their cul-de-sac plowed.National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center models suggest Southern Colorado will have ìnormal to above normalî snowfall this year. While this might not sound too bad, the Pikes Peak Region has been in a drought for the last several years. Only the snowstorms of January 2014, the so-called Polar Vortex, were considered above average. Many new residents may have yet to experience a full normal amount of snowfall in a Colorado winter.Falconís roads are split between the state and the county for snow removal responsibility. ìThe simple version is CDOT handles the numbered highways,î said Max Kirschbaum, operations manager for El Paso County. ìHighways 24, 94, Powers ñ- which is actually highway 21 ó and 115 going out past Fort Carson are examples of what the state takes care of.îThe county controls all other roads in Falcon, except for Colorado Springs annexed areas in Banning Lewis Ranch. ìWe have an intergovernmental agreement with them, where they plow a bit for us and us for them,î Kirschbaum said. ìWhere the boundary between city and county is somewhat arbitrary, you don’t want to just stop and turn around.îThe roads inside the metro district boundaries in Falcon, including Meridian Ranch, Woodmen Hills and Falcon Highlands, are also controlled by the county. ìMost metro districts do not do snow removal on public roads,î Kirschbaum said. ìThey may plow their property areas or a few other locations they may pick up. We do the residential areas.î Meridian Ranch plows its parking lot areas and the sidewalks along the major roads.Plow routes are set in advance, with maps in each plow truck and gravel road grader, said Troy Wiitala, highway manager. A three-step priority system determines when roads will be plowed.Priority 1 roads are the major arterial roads and section line roads. Examples in Falcon include Woodmen Road, Judge Orr, Falcon Highway and Meridian Road.Priority 2 roads are collector streets, such as Meridian Ranch Boulevard and Woodmen Hills Road.Priority 3 roads are those that do not lead to public safety facilities and purely residential streets and cul-de-sacs that are not on school bus routes.The plow operator determines when the priority 1 routes are done and they are able to move on to priority 2 roads. ìThe driver lets the foreman know that we’ve got the priority 1s done,î said Jerry Hicks, blade operator for the county. ìThen they go to priority 2.îPlowing a priority 1 road once doesn’t always mean the operator can move on to the next priority right away. ìDuring a snow event, the wind comes up and it becomes another snow event,î Hicks said. ìI can go through it, and the snow is coming back onto the road as fast as I can plow it.îThere is a large amount of ongoing communication among the drivers, dispatchers and other public agencies during snow events, Hicks said. ìSafety for us and safety for the public is top priority,î Hicks said. ìWe have communication the whole time we’re out there. If needed, the sheriffs will call us with problems, and we’ll go right over there where the problem may be.îPlow operators want to help when people are in real emergencies, but false 911 calls to clear streets so they can go to work or the grocery store strains resources. ìPeople shouldn’t do that to us,î Hicks said. ìOur job is to help everybody; and, when people do that, it’s endangering lives.î During true medical emergencies, plow operators have often led ambulances to a home and then cleared them a route back to the hospital, he said.School districts are also kept up to date on plow progress. ìWe stay in good communication with the districts, including 49,î Kirschbaum said. ìThey have an idea of what we’re doing. We don’t make decisions for them on school closures, but their decisions may be made based on our progress, especially on the rural bus routes. If they don’t have clear paths, they don’t want to take chances with kids on board.îEl Paso County’s plow and blade operators all have other responsibilities during nicer weather. ìEverybody is all-purpose,î Kirschbaum said. ìYour normal assignment is an asphalt crew or drainage crew, but all of our employees are also certified plow operators. When a storm comes in, the other work gets set aside.îPlanning ahead based on weather forecast is critical to making sure crews and plows can transition to snow removal promptly, as conditions deteriorate. ìWhen they do call us up, since the trucks are set up and ready to go, we have more than adequate time to make sure the pre-trip is excellent on those trucks and we’re ready to hit the road,î said Ken Claussen, county road maintenance worker.The operators stressed the importance of motorist safety and courtesy around the plows and blades. ìCommon sense and common courtesy aren’t so common sometimes,î Hicks said. Despite sitting higher up in the large red trucks or yellow blade tractors, visibility for the operator is just as bad as it is for motorists during storms. Plow trucks can get stuck in drifts or slide on ice. Plow trucks have been stuck on roads all night, alongside private vehicles.Each of the operators interviewed had stories of frightening moments involving motorists and plows. Even if a plow and sand truck have been over an intersection, black ice can cause a motorist ñ- or a plow ñ- to skid uncontrollably, Claussen said. He recalled working on the intersection of Black Forest Road and Woodmen Road when he saw a motorist slide sideways right through a red light in front of his truck. ìThat was definitely a frightening moment for me,î Claussen said.ìIf there’s anything people get out of this article, it’s that the best advice is just stay home,î Hicks said. Claussen added, ìIf you do have to go out, bring extra warm clothing, a first aid kit and a little food.î

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