Saturday December 29, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- City crews attacked the first snowstorm of the season in a coordinated, 24-hour effort that cost in the neighborhood of $40,000 to $50,000 and involved more than 40 city employees and nearly 30 private snowplow contractors, Commissioner of Public Utilities Bruce I. Collingwood said Friday.

"It went very well," he said. "They did a lot of maintenance and training and worked hard, and it’s showing."

In the aftermath of a snow emergency declaration that lasted through Thursday evening, prior staff training, equipment maintenance and other preparation during the warmer months was evident, Collingwood said.

The commissioner, now in his 11th year in the post, said the crews now are better prepared for what amounts to an intense, lengthy operation with myriad moving parts.

"The highway operations have been well supported" with regular replacement of trucks and equipment on a timely basis, he said. "When I first came in as commissioner, we has some very strong needs."

A significant aspect of snow removal operations is declaration of a snow emergency, which Collingwood announces in coordination with the mayor. And the part the public likely is most aware of -- or in some cases unaware -- is the extended ban on parking so that streets can be cleared.

"We did have to have cars towed," Collingwood said, adding that towing is not always necessary in a storm, depending on the circumstances, and the process "gets smoother and smoother with each storm."

According to Pittsfield Police Capt. John Mullin, 12 vehicles were towed during the storm. The costs for the owners, set by the state Department of Public Utilities, are $90 for the tow, $35 per day for storage, plus a $5.94 fuel surcharge, he said.

During storms, the city will hire a police officer to work with crews in areas where vehicles are inhibiting the plowing effort, Collingwood said. He said the focus is on narrow streets or sections where plowing is difficult. That’s where the tow trucks are most likely to be seen.

The commissioner said he hopes to use the city’s Code Red messaging system during the next storm to notify residents of a snow emergency and parking restrictions, and also to target certain areas of the city where the problem is most acute.

Collingwood said the planning for storms by highway Superintendent Peter Bruno and three highway managers includes training new department workers in plowing or related tasks and training employees from other departments who might be called in during a storm emergency.

Bruno can bring in workers from the water, parks, maintenance, wastewater treatment or other departments, and they might plow or perform support tasks, such as dispatching.

There were 28 private plow contractors for this storm, Collingwood said, and the city is hoping to add two more for future storms.

In addition, city workers operate six large plow trucks and smaller vehicles and have a couple of older vehicles as back-up. Crews work a 12-hour shift, he said, and the operation continues around the clock until the cleanup is completed.

One reason for the significant average cost per storm, he said, is the need to pay workers overtime -- including even higher pay during a holiday -- and the cost of materials like salt and sand and equipment replacement and repairs.

"Plowing is just very tough on equipment," Collingwood said.

The highway managers, Bruno and Collingwood keep track of progress on city streets through monitoring by the managers and through GPS devices in trucks that pinpoint current location and show where a plow has been.

There are many problems that can arise, Collingwood said, such as a new city plow driver or contractor who doesn’t realize a street continues in a certain direction or where a private street begins.

"Usually, problems come down to the driver hasn’t been there before," he said. "But we hear about it because we get the calls."

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_therrien