PITTSFIELD — “We missed the mark.”
That’s how Mayor Linda Tyer introduced the long-anticipated report on how the city handled a pre-Christmas holiday snowstorm that resulted in days of risky driving and dozens of car accidents throughout the city.
The Pittsfield City Council now has a long-awaited report on how city staff handled a Dec. 23 snowstorm. The nearly 20-page report covers an almost hour-by-hour look at what city plows were doing during the storm, how other cities responded and what could have improved difficult road conditions.
“I am very sorry for all the distress that was caused throughout our community over those three days,” Tyer told the City Council at its Tuesday evening meeting.
The mayor said that while city crews put forth a concerted effort to clear snow from a quickly changing storm, the ultimate results were “road conditions that did not meet our standards or community expectations.”
Tyer and Ricardo Morales, the commissioner of public services and utilities, spent much of the night fielding questions and comments from the clearly disappointed councilors.
The commissioner walked the body through a detailed look at when plow crews started work, what they used and how those efforts matched up against the weather — all the while trying to show the lessons the department had learned from the storm.
“We know we can do better,” Tyer said.
What went wrong
Councilors and city leaders agree that there were several points throughout the storm where a different judgment call might have given the city the edge in the storm.
The first call several councilors questioned was the department’s decision not to follow typical protocol and pretreat the roads in the couple of hours leading up to anticipated snowfall on Dec. 23.
Morales explained that the department had been concerned that forecasted rain would have washed away any road treatment and so crews weren’t deployed until flakes started falling. In reaching out to other towns, Morales said Adams provided a clue of what might have happened if Pittsfield had pretreated.
“They put down rock salt and said they knew that 80 percent of it was being lost with the rain,” Morales said. “But they understood what was left was enough to help give them the advantage.”
Councilor Patrick Kavey asked if Pittsfield crews would consider similar methods, knowing a majority of the treatment could be lost if rain falls before the snow. Morales said yes, emphasizing that one of the keys to fighting this storm effectively was how quickly crews could get out to and start working on their routes.
Time was a factor not on the plow drivers’ side with the holiday storm. Morales said that while eight city plows and 32 contractors got to work on the city’s main roads and neighborhood quadrants, they faced an uphill battle of clearing quickly falling snow through large routes.
The commissioner said that by the time city plows cleared their route and returned for a second pass, about 4 inches of new snow was waiting to greet them. All this became hard-packed as residents made their way home from work or on last minute holiday errands.
It’s here there was another missed opportunity the commissioner admits. Morales wrote, in his nearly 20-page report, to the mayor and council that when it became clear that the plowing and treating efforts were not match for the quickly falling snow, a CodeRED call to residents could have alerted travelers to the dangerous road conditions.
In the commissioner’s own review of the Pittsfield Police Department collision reports, he found 43 collision reports. The reports — which mark accidents that included minor property damage — were concentrated to the immediacy of the storm with a little more than half of the reports occurring in the first 10 to 24 hours after the storm.
Nearly all of the councilors shared tales of the hundreds of calls they fielded from residents, their own family travel troubles, the holiday celebrations interrupted and overwhelming frustration with the situation during the storm and the days that followed.
Those stories sometimes blended into anecdotes from this week’s storm, with several councilors saying missed streets, fast plows and icy hills continue to show room for improvement in the department’s operations.
The majority of the council approached the report with an open mind on how to help the department remedy weaknesses in the response and make its snow clearing operations better.
“Public confidence remains low and we can and we must do better,” Councilor Jim Conant said. “And I have all the confidence that we will.”
In the month since the storm, Morales told the council he’s identified several short- and long-term solutions to help fill weaknesses in the city’s snow clearing materials, equipment and workload.
Morales said that the department is currently working to retrofit four of the city’s six plows to hold tanks that will allow drivers to switch between the city’s standard hot mix and a mix of liquid magnesium chloride and rock salt. That effort is coming with a one-time cost of $32,000.
In addition, the department is adding to its existing — but limited — magnesium chloride stores so material can be used in any storm that brings deep cold and ice. This is raising the department’s material cost by about 33 percent to cover the $1.15 per gallon cost of liquid magnesium chloride.
For the longer term, Morales said, he is recommending adding two new plows to the city’s fleet — and addition currently priced at $720,000 — increasing the number of city drivers that can help divvy the workload.
The solutions to decreasing the amount of workload per city plow driver remained the more amorphous of the problems facing the department. The commissioner said he is in talks with the state Department of Transportation to see if it will accept plowing responsibilities for the numbered routes in Pittsfield.
State plows, which have more material resources and drivers, currently stop blowing along the outer bounds of Route 7, Route 9 and Route 20. If the state took on these roadways as they crossed through the city, that would reduce the city’s workload by some 25 lane miles.
Morales said he was told by the state that the next step in these talks would be to reach out to the city’s Statehouse delegation — a move Mayor Tyer said she’s already taking.