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Feature Story





Let it Snow!
UMass storm troopers can handle it

By Ben Barnhart

Photo: Cournoyer

During the worst storms Todd Cournoyer says as many as four trucks are used in tandem to open the roads. "We don't have to worry about traffic then. We are the traffic!"

Who doesn't love a snow day? Huddling beside a warm fire watching the meandering, mesmerizing fall of those fat flakes of crystallized water-vapor is as deeply New England as strolling under a canopy of red and gold leaves in the crisp October sun, or breakfasting on pancakes and fresh-boiled maple syrup in a drafty sugarhouse on a foggy March morning.

     Of course, for those charged with cleaning up after Mother Nature, a snowy winterscape is not a pretty picture. When the fluffy white stuff falls at UMass, a small army of men and women driving snowplows and sanders or wielding shovels and snowblowers fans out across campus, clearing roads, sidewalks, ramps, and lots so the university's population can safely go about its business.

     Like any large-scale mobilization of people and equipment, the campus snow removal operation requires planning, communication, and a little good fortune. Long before a storm becomes a blip on the regional weather radar, a team of managers representing the five areas of the grounds department gathers to analyze forecasts, check the university's events calendar, and strategize.

     "We've got this huge yard to clean," says Marc Fournier '76, stretching his arms wide as if to encompass the entire 1400-acre campus and its ninety-four acres of parking lots, twenty miles of roads, fifty miles of sidewalks, nine acres of terraces and plazas, and 194 buildings with steps and handicap-access ramps that need to be uncovered after every snowfall.

     "And we have to have it clean like that," he adds with a snap of his fingers.

     Fournier took on responsibility for the snow removal operation three years ago when he became the physical plant's assistant director for grounds. With lots of help and input from his staff, he implemented a detailed plan to make sure the right people are in the right place with the right equipment at the right time.

     His management team – Bob Daughdrill, Bob Harlow, Jim Larose, Jack Rogala, and Larry Snyder – convenes at least eight hours before the arrival of a predicted storm to plan their attack on the approaching snow. Studying incoming weather reports and the day's happenings on campus, they decide how much manpower to allocate to snow removal, and where that manpower is most needed.

     Is a basketball game scheduled for the Mullins Center? Will the storm bring all snow or an icy mixture? Is an evening performance planned at the FAC? How long is the storm expected to last? Are continuing ed classes meeting at Herter? Priority must be given to health services, the police station, and the dining halls.

     On average, just over forty inches of snow falls on Amherst every year. The worst storms are those that descend on the valley under the cover of darkness and dump their loads in the early morning hours, rolling the UMass storm troopers from their warm beds with just a few hours to prepare the campus for the morning influx of students, faculty and staff.

     As the storm nears, one of the management team mans physical plant's "snow desk," which receives real-time weather information via DTN satellite, Internet forecasts, and hour-by-hour faxes from Weather Services Corporation. The snow desk serves as the central command post, and also fields trouble calls and dispatches help to those areas.

     Sanding trucks are the first to hit the roadways, spreading a mixture of sand, salt and Ice Ban Magic – an ecologically-friendly alternative to salt that Fournier is experimenting with – even before the snow begins to fall.

     As the powdery white flakes begin to collect on sidewalks and roadways, the plows move into action, pushing the buildup into snowy windrows along the edge of the campus's thoroughfares.

     "Besides being slippery, snow lowers the temperature of the pavement and that means more salt is needed to melt the snow," Todd Cournoyer yells over the grunting of his diesel Mack truck and the low rumble of its ten-foot-wide plow on the pavement of Massachusetts Avenue. "So our goal is to keep the snow off the roads."

     A snowstorm means a long day for Cournoyer who, like all the snow fighters on campus, has regular duties – he hauls coal to the university's steam plant – that gets neglected whenever he's plowing roads. Sixteen-hour days are common during a storm, and Cournoyer says he's worked as many as five such days back-to-back during a big one. In those situations the university provides rooms in the Campus Center Hotel for workers to sleep between shifts.

     "Of course, it'd be easier for us if they closed the campus," says Cournoyer. With his forearms draped across the giant steering wheel and his hands gripping its rim, he bounces like a burly pogo stick with the rough ride of the eighteen-ton truck. His scruffy, bearded face turns constantly side-to-side, watching oncoming traffic, checking his mirrors, and keeping tabs on his partner, Bob Barnicle, who follows in another snowplow, further widening the swath of clean pavement. "The traffic can be a problem for us," Cournoyer says, "and we have some really inexperienced drivers on campus."

     Occasionally, when a bad storm hits at a bad time, the UMass community is treated to a snow day. But Fournier says closing the campus is a risky and expensive proposition. Snowstorms are hard to predict even with the most sophisticated technology, so the mere threat of heavy snow is rarely reason enough to close. Also, even if classes are canceled, many events and essential services are not.

     Like most bureaucratic decisions, the final say on closing the campus is a result of checking and rechecking with people up and down the administrative ladder. When a snow-removal operation is in full swing – usually at about 3 a.m. – Fournier receives a call from the snow desk manager, who's checked forecasts and radar data and talked to state police and town officials about road conditions in outlying areas.

     Fournier then contacts physical plant director Earl Smith. They weigh the situation, discuss their options and make a recommendation to vice chancellor for administration and finance Paul Page. Page calls Chancellor David Scott for further discussion and by 4 a.m. a decision is made – either to close the campus, delay opening until 11 a.m., cancel evening activities, or continue with business as usual. The decision is then relayed back down the chain to Fournier and the snow desk. Using an arcane system of designated callers and secret codes to prevent sabotage, the decision is also passed on to media outlets, and the university's web page and snow emergency phone line are updated.

     By this time, just a few hours before the sleeping city of 30,000 awakes, the entire UMass grounds crew of seventy men and women is on the job, plowing, sanding, shoveling, or offering support services. They get much-needed help from a corps of forty volunteer shovelers – colleagues from other physical plant departments who shovel snow for overtime pay before going to their regular duties. The custodial crew pitches in by clearing snow within fifteen feet of their assigned buildings for a $25 bonus in their paycheck.

Between them, Carl Adamski and Earl Owen have logged forty-seven years on the volunteer list, so they've probably both shoveled several tons of snow. Adamski is an HVAC technician, Owen a painter, and they know a phone call from maintainer Darcie Olanyk on a snowy evening means a backbreaking day will follow. Olanyk's snow duty is contacting shovelers when a storm is expected and answering calls at the snow desk.

     Owen says better weather forecasting makes for better preparation, but nothing reduces the amount of snow that eventually has to be moved, one shovelful at a time. Over the years Owen and Adamski have learned to watch their backs in more than one sense. Students, especially in the Southwest dorms, sometimes hurl snowballs and other projectiles if the shovelers make too much noise during early morning snow duty. In addition to good personnel, the snow removal operation depends on reliable machinery. Fournier has built a fleet of multi-use vehicles through lease-purchase agreements that give the university ownership of machines after five years of use. Spring mowers can become winter snowblowers with a few turns of a wrench, and the trucks that plow snow and haul sand in the winter are used year-round for other tasks. Fournier says this is safer and more efficient because operators often use the same vehicle for all their jobs.

     "This work is hard on equipment," Cournoyer says as he deftly guides his rebuilt 1988 Mack six-wheeler around campus. As if to illustrate his point, the truck shudders with a loud clang every time its heavy plow hits a pothole. "And it beats your body up, too," he adds with a wince.

     Barnicle's muffled voice enters the cab through a crackling two-way radio that keeps the crews in touch with each other; he's suffered a mechanical problem, and the two-plow caravan heads toward fleet services, where mechanics are on hand to keep the operation in gear. Cournoyer explains that two plows are better than one so he waits a few minutes until his partner's rig is repaired and ready to roll again. During the worst storms Cournoyer says as many as four trucks are used in tandem to open the roads.

     "We don't have to worry about traffic then," he says with a grin. "We are the traffic!"

     With the reduction of staffing levels at physical plant over the past decade, the job of clearing the university's huge parking lots has been turned over to private contractors, using $100,000 in funds from the parking office. The cost of keeping the campus streets and sidewalks free of snow and ice comes from the physical plant's operating budget and varies depending on the severity of the winter. This winter, which has been milder than normal, has cost Physical Plant $12,000 in supplies and nearly 15,000 staff-hours in labor. Last year 1,697 tons of sand, 452 tons of road salt, 515 gallons of Ice Ban Magic, and 5,500 gallons of Blue Lightning, a magnesium chloride de-icer, was used against the weather, according to Fournier.

     Besides bringing a team-based approach to fighting snow, Fournier has also focused on reducing its environmental impact. (His last job was directing the university's waste management program.) Fournier's pet product, Ice Ban Magic, is a sticky, brown, brewery by-product that's sprayed onto streets and sidewalks and mixed into the sand that's scattered to give drivers and pedestrians improved traction. Although still an experimental solution, I.B.M. seems to lessen the adherence of snow to pavement, reducing the amount of salt the crews need to apply. Salt, of course, is highly corrosive and destructive to cars, machinery and organic life.

     Fournier says Ice Ban Magic actually makes spring cleanup easier, and serves as an organic fertilizer. Every year after the snow season is past, his crews sweep up the winter's sand from the roadways, trucking it to the Amherst landfill where it's used as cover.

     As Cournoyer steers his truck back onto Commonwealth Avenue he explains that the ultimate goal of the snow removal operation is to provide us with a safe campus. Like many essential services, though, his work is mostly noticed in its absence.

     "Usually, the only comments we hear are the negative ones," he says. "People don't think much about snow removal until they start slipping and sliding on their way to work. Then they want to know who's responsible."

     As the snow keeps falling and collecting on the roads, Cournoyer continues to plow, like an old eight-track tape-deck stuck on "play," in endless loops around campus. After hours and hours of pushing snow off the university's roads, he's loathe to clear his own driveway in Greenfield, he says. He hires a neighbor to do it for him.

     "When I come home after one of these storms," says Cournoyer, peering out over his huge yellow plow at the snow-covered road ahead, "that's the last thing I want to do."

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