UNION — The Farmer’s Almanac predicted the winter of 2014 would be one of the most bitterly cold and snowy in decades and that prediction turned out to be accurate.
Removing all this snow, though, has not been easy for most local public works departments. In fact, it has been an overwhelming task that requires considerable planning and expertise.
If there is one thing Union DPW Superintendent Sergio Panunzio knows well, it’s snow removal.
Although some winters result in very little snowfall, others, like this year, surpass normal expected levels. For the 75-member DPW crew manning the 51 pieces of equipment around the clock during and after snow storms to clear over 650 streets in the municipality, it can be a taxing job.
“You try to get it done as quickly as possible,” Panunzio explained in an interview late last week, right after his crew handled two storms within a few days, but he pointed out there are federal laws involving how long a DPW worker can work. For every 16-hour shift, he said, an employee has to take a four-hour break. And, while this DPW superintendent has a base crew of 75, that does not mean all are working at any given time.
“We could have one or two retire, another out sick or on vacation so we have to work with what we have and in order to do that you have to be organized,” Panunzio explained, mentioning he puts his workers on 12 to 16 hour shifts.
He is also aware that people look out at the streets during or after a storm and wonder why their area is not being cleared in a timelier manner.
“How it works is we have to clear the primary roads first, such as Vauxhall, Lehigh, Chestnut, and Colonial, because in case there is a worst case scenario we will be able to get fire, EMS or other emergency vehicles to the scene,” he explained, adding that secondary roads are next on the list because they connect to primary roads.
But the DPW is on the job until the job is done, he stressed.
“The truth is my guys don’t want to go home and risk an ambulance or fire truck not being able to get through to a home or accident scene,” the DPW superintendent said, adding the township is actually divided into six sections for snow removal.
“Each of these six sections is divided into four sub-sections and we have crews that know these sections very well and the cuts they have to make,” Panunzio explained.
“Every neighborhood is different in its own way,” he added, pointing out his crew does not just head out to clear roads without a carefully mapped out plan that begins prior to the snowy season even beginning.
Panunzio said he and several of his crew sit down with police and fire officials to determine what streets are critical if there is an emergency. But while some people believe their street is being neglected or even forgotten, the DPW supervisor said that is far from the truth.
“Someone has to be at the beginning of snow removal and someone has to be at the end,” he said, adding that although cull-de-sack streets used to be last on the list for plowing, now they are rotated with dead end streets. The person driving the snow plow, the DPW superintendent said, also has to be experienced in plowing a cull-de-sack because of the cuts involved.
Certainly the DPW and police receive many calls from residents saying their street has not been paved. In some cases it can be a health emergency.
“We get calls from people who say they have a relative who needs to get to dialysis but their street is full of snow but I can’t just send a snow plow over to that street,” he said, suggesting residents with this issue register with EMS so that street is among those plowed first.
“People lose perspective of the big picture when there is a storm. They don’t realize we have a big town here and there is a method to how we plow these streets,” Panunzio said, adding “my guys are the hardest working with probably the lowest pay, but we take it to heart.”
The recent ice and snow storm on Feb. 5, he said was very difficult for the DPW to handle.
“That’s what we call heart attack snow,” Panunzio said, explaining that the massive weight of this heavy, wet snow was “unbelievable.”
“We tell our crew they are not leaving their zone until a supervisor comes and checks to make sure it was done right,” the DPW superintendent explained, pointing out that during and after the Feb. 5 storm he had more equipment break than normal.
“It was just a massive weight for these machines to handle,” he said.
Many DPW’s debate whether “brining” streets will help reduce dangerous road conditions, but Panunzio said that depends entirely on when the job is done.
“Brining has to be done two to three days before a storm so the liquid can soak into the roadway, but it doesn’t work if the temperature is below 10 degrees,” he explained.
Although many towns have experienced a salt shortage this winter, Panunzio was happy to report that Union is still in good shape.
“Our rule is to average how much we used in the last three years and order what we need through the state co-op,” he said, adding “we have a capacity to hold 1,100 tons.”
The state, though, controls how this salt is contained, and keeps a close eye on whether municipalities are keeping this snow melting commodity off the ground and in a proper shelter.
“We are probably one of the few in the county who have salt at this point,” the DPW superintendent said, pointing out that should his salt supply run low, he can mix sand with salt to ensure the roads are safe. But when the temperature dips down, salt is little help.
“After the temperature goes below 20 degrees, salt won’t work,” Panunzio said, adding that on the days the temperature did go below 20, he told his crew “why waste the salt.”
As the snow melts the DPW heads out to fill pot holes and that is a major job after multiple snowfalls.
“What happens is asphalt is porous and the snow seeps through it and expands, breaking it down and causing a pothole,” the DPW superintendent said, mentioning his crew has been filling 300 to 400 potholes a day, but it is only a temporary measure.
“In winter the asphalt plants close down so we use what is called a cold patch to fill these pot holes in,” he added, explaining his crews have already filled 1,800 to 2,000 pot holes throughout the township.