Snow warriors plow so you can drive safely

January 26, 2000

Snow warriorsBy ANDREW SCHOTZ / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

Long before heavy snow blankets Washington County's roads, the highway crew gets in gear.

Trucks rumble along the county's 822 miles of road. Plows muscle the snow out of the path of traffic and spreaders drop salt and fine limestone in its place.

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When parts fail, the trucks go back to the garage, so mechanics can patch up the mighty machines and return them to the battle.

For some of the truck drivers, mechanics, and others in the highway department, Tuesday's nor'easter, which dropped up to 13.5 inches of snow in the county, was a 32-hour ordeal.


On Wednesday afternoon, several Washington County Highway Department workers were slumped on couches and chairs at the garage on the northern fringe of Hagerstown.

Three p.m. was approaching and their job appeared to be done.

Highway Department Director Ted Wolford said his employees did yeoman's work and deserve the public's respect.

"They're dedicated employees trying to do a job so people can get where they have to go," he said. "People get mad because they plowed a driveway shut, but if it weren't for them going 24 or 30 hours in a row, people couldn't drive."

And if it weren't for mechanics like Randy Smith, the county plows might not be on the roads.

Most problems are routine - broken chains, flat tires, and plow bolts that have come loose, Smith said.

During a blizzard, there's pressure to solve problems big and small, and trucks may be lined up outside the garage, Smith said.

A debate over whether people appreciate their work injected some life into the drivers.

Some said they believe at least 70 percent of the residents are grateful.

"Most people, when they go by, they throw a hand up" in a wave, said Joe Ralls, who's completing his first year with the highway department after three with the county's weed control program.

Wayne Turner, with 23 years on the job the department's longest-tenured employee, wasn't convinced.

Take tailgaters, for instance.

"They just drive right behind you," he said. "You hit the brakes. They go sliding and they want to curse you out."

People clearing snow from in front of their homes "want to pick up a shovel and throw it through your windshield," Turner said.

Turner joined the highway department to straighten out his life. "I didn't do much of anything," he said. "I drank a lot."

Today, he's in charge of keeping others in line. On snowless days, he leads a crew of state prisoners as they pick up trash, cut weeds, or perform some other task.

Ellis Snyder summarized the drivers' main peeves.

"People should stay off the roads when they don't have to (drive)," he urged. "Don't park around cul-de-sacs."

After letting his colleagues explain the job for a while, 18-year veteran Richard Needy spoke up.

"It's a very dangerous job out there," he said. "You can go off the road and flip."

Asked how he keeps his cool in the face of frustration, Needy grinned. "Just smile and say 'Thank God I've got a job.' Then you go home and try to relax. It takes four or five hours."

Employees shed light on some of the common questions that pop up during storms.

Snyder said there are two reasons why you might see trucks driving on snowy roads with the plows raised. The first is that the road may have just been salted. The salt can't be plowed away before it has time to melt the snow, he said.

The process takes longer at night. Wolford said the heavier daytime traffic increases the temperature of the road, which helps the salt work.

The second reason a plow might be raised is that county trucks plow only county roads, while other municipalities, and the state of Maryland, plow their own, Snyder said.

Many people also want to know what happens when a mailbox is broken when a plow hits it or pushes snow into it.

Diane Mongan handles those calls. The county will reimburse a mailbox owner up to $25 for a replacement, she said.

In as many cases as possible, a crew will make the repairs within two days after snow quits falling, she said.

Wolford calls Mongan, who has almost 20 years at her job, "the hub" when a storm is dumping snow on the county. She keeps in touch with county truck drivers who are on the road and answers phone calls from the public.

One perception is that department workers are lazy, but that comes from people who demand that a driver immediately come to clear their road, Mongan said.

"The first thing we hear is, 'I pay taxes and I pay your salary.' That gets really irritating," she said. "We pay taxes too."

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