In the legendary 1970s television sitcom Sanford and Son, grouchy lead character Fred Sanford would frequently get his son’s attention by dramatically saying, “Oh, this is the biggest one I ever had. You hear that Elizabeth? I’m coming to join you, honey” mimicking a big heart attack that never came.
Snow and ice management professionals encounter a lot of Fred Sanfords’ each season when the next winter event on the Doppler radar is proclaimed to be the “biggest one ever” or over-eager local meteorologists herald the “storm of the century.”
With television weather personalities not exactly batting a thousand when it comes to accurately predicting when and where snow will fall, and in what quantities, snow and ice management professionals need to rely on their advance preparation skills and experience to battle significant snow events.
Being able to deliver the contracted snow and ice removal services once the heavy stuff is coming down (and down, and down) is what separates the superior contractors from the also-rans.
A state of preparedness
In any profession success is often achieved due to being thoroughly prepared for what you expect to happen and, more importantly, for what you don’t expect. The latter part of that statement rings especially true with snow and ice contractors who have to battle the fickle moods of Mother Nature to get the job done.
“We have to be prepared ahead of time and ready to go before the first snow event of the season,” says Jennie Schenderline, owner of JEFFCO Grounds Maintenance in Anchorage, Alaska, which averages nearly 75 inches of snow annually but that has experienced winters with as much as 132 inches of snow. “We perform all of our equipment maintenance in September as our property maintenance business wraps up for the season because we can have a snow event hit as early as October.”
A lot of the legwork involved in allowing snow and ice contractors to meet the challenges of handling a major snow and ice event are done when the grass is still green and the leaves are still on the trees.
At Arctic Snow and Ice Control, a Frankfort, Ill.-based company dedicated to providing snow and ice management services to commercial clients in Illinois and northwest Indiana, fall is meeting season as the company brings its staff together to review safety training, and plowing and equipment operating procedures.
“We do more than a dozen meeting with our drivers, plow, skid steer and loader operators to review our operating procedures with an emphasis on safety,” says Rick Bell, general manager of Arctic Snow and Ice Control. “We also go over our color-coded, in-house salt application and communication procedures. It’s repetitive but it is an important part of getting our crews ready for the season.”
Arctic Snow and Ice’s pre-season preparations also include meetings with its field foreman to review site maps, routes and information on each client. A site inspection is then conducted by the foreman and the company’s detailed pre-season site checklist is reviewed.
The checklist notes potential hazards or damage on the property that crews could encounter during the winter including the location of:
Once the storm has stopped falling and the ice has melted, Arctic’s foremen take to the road to complete their post-event checklist. The checklist includes the following information:
Another important equipment related element of JEFFCO’s pre-season preparation is making sure they are well-stocked with replacement parts. Schenderline says it is not easy for contractors in Alaska to obtain spare parts as it is for their counterparts in the lower 48, and that broken down equipment makes the cold Alaskan winter even colder for her and her clients.
“We keep plenty of parts on hand during the season so we aren’t caught short if a piece of equipment goes down in-season,” says Schenderline.
One of the most critical components of the company’s preparation takes place well in advance of the first flake falling. Schenderline and her staff closely review customer job sites – both new and existing – to familiarize or update themselves with the specifics of the account layout.
“We check for pre-existing damage, changes to the parking lot layout and where our snow storage areas are located during the walkthrough because that space looks a whole lot different when it is covered with several inches of the white stuff,” says Schenderline.
With snow storage space being at a premium in the Anchorage market, Schenderline says it is important for her plowers to know where their snow storage areas are ahead of time.
“An inexperienced plow driver can create snow piles that are convenient for them but end up being inconvenient for the client,” says Schenderline. “We make sure the snow storage areas and haul away locations are clearly identified.”
For Rick Bell, general manager of Arctic Snow and Ice Control in suburban Chicago, preparedness starts with making sure that the manpower and equipment resources are available to get the job done.
“It comes down to making sure your people and equipment assets are in place and properly staged, and that they have everything they need to hit the road the moment the first snow flake hits the ground,” says Bell.
Arctic Snow and Ice uses a weather monitoring service to give management, supervisors and crews as much advance notice as possible on an upcoming storm and provides continuous updates throughout the event.
The emphasis the company places on communication – both internally and externally – prior to and during a major snow event is also an important part of the process.
“We have a snow center on our website where customers can check for updates and we send out e-mail blasts and make personal calls to alert customers to the pending snow event,” says Bell. “Keeping clients informed and aware gives them confidence in our capabilities and lets them know we are ready to go.”
Buried in the snow
As any veteran snow and ice contractor will tell you a major snow event can be an unpredictable beast to tame, and flexibility and advance preparation are essential.
During Chicago’s Blizzard of 2011, when more than 20 inches snow fell upon the city, Bell’s crews were out in full force and had more than 90 percent of its customers’ facilities up and going by the next day.
He credits the company’s pre-season training efforts and advance preparation for allowing them to rise to the challenge against one of the Windy City’s biggest snow storms on record.
“The timing of a storm will dictate your approach to attacking it,” says Bell. “For example, if the storm hits overnight we tell our crews to stay on top of it and get the parking lots cleared. If the storm hits during the day our focus is on keeping sidewalks and building entrances clear of snow and ice for foot traffic.”
JEFFCO’s Schenderline says in addition to the timing of the storm, knowing your clients business and the specifics of their operation also helps prioritize crew activity during a major snow event.
“Knowing your customers’ schedules and when they need to be up and running is important,” says Schenderline. “For example, if the storm hits on a Saturday and the customer is closed for the weekend we know we can get to them on Sunday and still have them ready to go for Monday morning.”
In the heat of the moment during a major snow event when your cell phone is ringing constantly with customer calls, you are scrambling to get a broken plow back in service, and your crews are fighting through long shifts, is where your pre-season preparation pays off.
Bell and Schenderline agree keeping customers informed and staying on top of quality control during a major snow and ice event are essential. Also, keeping a watchful eye on crews and keeping them from falling prey to fatigue, a common cause of mistakes, is important.
What items get “buried in the snow” in the run up to a major snow and ice event? Veteran snow pros offer the following tips:
What can be to improve plowing and de-icing efforts during a major snow event? “We want to make sure procedures are followed and that we document what was done well and what can be improved the next time. We encourage our foreman to take pictures of the site and share them with customers. Sharing this information with property managers has been a good tool to demonstrating our capabilities and professionalism.”
-- Rick Bell, Arctic Snow & Ice
Jeff Fenner is a Cleveland-based writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.
Illustration by DARREN GYGI