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
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
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
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
"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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