City crews on 24-hour schedule for snow and ice operations

Snow and ice removal crews at Great Falls Public Works operate on a 24 hour schedule during the winter.

They’ve been busy the last few weeks.

“It usually takes a good 24 hours after a snow event to get to all our priority roads,” said Eric Boyd, city street division foreman.

Boyd and the street division were kind enough to take The Electric for a ride as they cleared some of the streets Saturday afternoon after about five inches of snow had fallen overnight. (By the time I left the public works complex on Saturday, it was snowing again)

The crews take a lot of pride in their work and try to clear streets quickly and safely and then go back and widen available travel lanes and move as much snow while avoiding driveways and do their best not to bury cars left parked on the street, Boyd said.

Sometimes they clear streets and then residents shoveling or snowblowing their driveways push it all back into the street and crews have to go back through and plow them again.

Bundle up, have a winter survival kit in your car and give plows some space this weekend

City snow removal crews are out 24/7 and have divided the city into five sections. Boyd said they’re typically a minimum of four city snow plows out on the city streets at any given time. For a major snow or ice event, they’ll usually have at least five snow plows out at a time.

The city crews haven’t had a shift off for the entire month of December and are working weekends and holidays.

Boyd said they start 24 hour operations for winter depending on the weather. They try to wait until at least Thanksgiving, but are at the mercy of Mother Nature. They typically stay on the 24-hour schedule through April, again depending on weather conditions.

Even though by the end of the winter months, the crews are often tired of the overnight shift or working weekends, “it is a really fun job,” Boyd said.

They work 8 hour shifts with two 15-minute breaks. They’ll spend most of that time on the road and would argue that fewer people know city streets better than they do, except maybe the sanitation crews, Boyd said. Snow plow drivers have learned where the curbs are, uneven pavement, potholes and especially manhole covers that aren’t flush with the road.

Boyd said most drivers learn pretty quickly where those are and don’t forget since hitting a manhole with a snowplow is a jolt.

On Saturday night, the Great Falls Police Department thanked local plow drivers with a Facebook post and about two dozen people commented to add their gratitude for the local snow removal crews, including Cascade County and Montana Department of Transportation crews.

The city classifies streets into different categories with the first being Priority One.

Those streets are the emergency snow routes marked by the blue snow route signs. These streets provide a network system throughout the city for emergency services operations.

Next comes the priority two streets, or major arterials. These are high volume streets and complete the major street network with particular attention to schools, hospitals and business areas, according to the city.

Third priority are the selected collector streets. These streets include mass transit routes and other collector streets necessary to provide access to major arterials, according to the city.

Other streets not included in those categories don’t generally get plowed since it creates such a mess for on-street parking and mail delivery, said Kenny Jorgensen, Great Falls’ street division supervisor.

“There’s just nowhere to put the snow,” he said.

Here’s a map of the city’s snow removal priority routes and here’s a copy of the city’s snow and ice removal plan.

Unless there’s a huge dumping of snow, the city won’t plow those streets without a directive from the city manager to do so, he said.

“After awhile, you run out of places to put it,” Jorgensen said.

Since the snow hadn’t really starting falling Friday morning, city crews shifted gears and focused on collecting snow from the rows piled in the middle of the priority roads, like 8th Avenue North and downtown. Boyd said they’d probably be out doing that again this week.

While plowing, city crews push the snow to the middle and then when time and resources allow, they go back through with snow blowers and dump trucks to pick it up and move it elsewhere to make room for additional snowfall, Jorgensen said.

After a normal snowfall, Boyd said city crews move 500 to 600 dump truck loads worth of snow from downtown and 8th Avenue North. If time and resources allow, they also try to pick up accumulated snow around schools or other areas that cause a safety hazard, Boyd said.

All that snow goes to holding spots behind the Great Falls Police Department or a spot across the river from GFPD off Bay Drive and eventually ends up at a city owned property on the northern edge of town behind Munson Radio.

City crews also drop sand at intersections, stop signs and hilly routes, then go back as time allows to drop sand on approaches to those areas.

To make life easier for snow plow drivers, and for everyone’s safety, Boyd encouraged drivers to stay back at least 50 feet from city plows since they might be dropping sand as they go or when they come to stops at intersections. They’re not likely going more than 10 miles per hour around town and you can generally pass them on roads with multiple lanes, but give them space to work. Drivers should avoid passing MDT snow plows though, according to MDT.

The city buys about 6,000 tons of sand annually and mix it with about 5 percent salt to sand to prevent the sand from freezing, Jorgensen said.

Snow plow operations have been light so far this year until this month, Jorgensen said, and they typically don’t plow unless there’s at least two inches of snow accumulation.

City officials watch four to five forecasts, and they’re all usually a bit different, Jorgensen said, to they try to watch those and use their best judgment to decide what to do and when to do it.

It will generally take city crews about 24 hours to get to all of their priority roads and make them passable by plowing. Once that’s completed, they’ll start working to widen travel lanes, pushing snow further toward the curb or middle of the road. They’ll also go back through with blades to cut along the bottom of the snowpack and neaten up snow around driveways and curbside mailboxes.

Snow and ice control operations are funded through the citywide street assessment. It’s roughly 20 percent of the overall street budget, Jorgensen said.

The city owns seven truck mounted plows and one pickup sized v-plow, three motor graders with snow gates, two front end loaders, one front end loader mounted snow blower and one skidsteer mounted snow blower. All trucks and equipment other than snow and ice control specific equipment are used year around in other maintenance efforts, Jorgensen said.

The city has 20 full-time street employees and all of them are required to obtain a commercial drivers license and all get on the job peer training plus safety/skills training, according to Jorgensen.

Snow operations run on a 24 hour schedule. The first shift is 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., second shift is 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., third shift is 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. and the overlapping fourth shift is 4 a.m. to 12 p.m.

MDT maintains the following roadways in the area:

  • all bridges
  • 1st and 2nd Avenue North
  • 14th and 15th Streets
  • 10th Avenue South
  • 6th Street South West
  • North West Bypass
  • Central Avenue West
  • River Drive
  • 3rd Street North West
  • Park Drive
  • Vaughn Road
  • 57th Street
  • Bootlegger Trail
  • Old Havre Highway
  • Market Place Exit “0”
  • 25th Avenue Northeast from Old Havre Highway to the east

Since the forecast includes at least a fair bit of snow, if not a lot of snow, this weekend, here’s a reminder of the city regulations for snow removal for property owners.

City code requires that snow and ice that has accumulated be removed from sidewalks in commercial areas before 11 a.m. each day and from residential areas within 24 hours after the snowfall. Once cleared, all sidewalks shall be kept clear of snow, ice and similar material, according to code. To report an area of concern, call the city’s code enforcement office at 406.455-8574.

Snow and ice removed from sidewalks in commercial areas should not be dropped into the adjoining streets, avenues or alleys within two feet of the curbline.

The city recommends that if you’re leaving town to ensure you have someone shoveling your sidewalks while you’re gone to avoid code violations and make it look like someone is home. If you notice a neighbor that is not shoveling, the city encourages you to help them out if you can since they may be elderly or not feeling well.