It’s a tough job and some truck’s gotta do it

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Updated Dec 2, 2015
It was only 2 hp, but it got the job done plowing the snow back in 1903 in Lincoln Park, Chicago. What! No heated cab?! (Photo from the Library of Congress.)It was only 2 hp, but it got the job done plowing the snow back in 1903 in Lincoln Park, Chicago. What! No heated cab?! (Photo from the Library of Congress.)

After interviewing Springfield, Mo. Public Works Street Superintendent Ron Bailey, I’ve got a newfound respect for cities that have to take on the snow each year with plow and dump trucks, front loaders and mountains of salt and calcium chloride.

For the past four decades, I’ve lived mostly in Florida and Southern California, so snow is an anomaly. As I write this, it’s December 1 in northwest Florida and 78 degrees outside. Snow is definitely not in the forecast, and the beach still sounds like a good idea.

During the 20 years we lived in San Diego, we had some freezing temperatures, but no snow. And for the 20 years we’ve lived in the Florida panhandle, we had snow on one memorable night.

Two years ago, about an inch of powder prompted the closure of schools and a lot of businesses. You can’t blame them. Floridians on Ice is a show best reserved for a skating rink—not the streets.

So before talking to Mr. Bailey, I had little idea of what a city is up against when it comes to tackling snow and ice each year.

We get hurricanes periodically where I live, but not enough to warrant keeping a fleet of amphibious rescue vehicles. The last major storm in our area occurred about 10 years ago. We lost power for a day or so, and the flip-flop brigade in our neighborhood mostly took on a few fallen limbs and a bunch of leaves. We were fortunate.

In Springfield, Mo., and other snow-laden cities, fleets of snowplow trucks stand at the ready each year to take on snow and ice that would otherwise turn most residents into a bunch of helpless shut-ins. That much I knew before talking to Mr. Bailey.

What I didn’t know is that the salt used to melt the snow is so corrosive that these heavy and severe duty plow trucks have a short life-span. Springfield rotates three vehicles out of its fleet every three years, according to Bailey.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t know of any other HD and SD work trucks that have such a short, hard life. And these trucks aren’t cheap. Springfield recently acquired three Freightliners, model 108SD, equipped with all the necessary equipment to take on Old Man Winter. A new 108SD with no body retails for around $110,000. One fitted for snow removal can mean shelling out another $90,000 or so.

I spent a few minutes searching the Internet for used snowplow trucks and while I didn’t find any HD or SD plow trucks, I did come across a few pickup models. There are plenty of pieces and parts for sale on sites like eBay. And new HD and SD snowplow trucks are advertised on various sites.

Soon enough, the snow will start falling in Springfield and when that happens, road etiquette changes. When it comes to sharing the road with snowplow trucks, the Missouri Department of Transportation offers several tips on its website. Here are a few highlights: Give snowplows room to work; don’t tailgate or try to pass; A “strike team” may include several plow trucks, some with tow plows and wing plows, and block all lanes on a major highway; Salt brine trucks have a sign on the back warning motorists “Liquid Salt, Stay Back.” That is for your safety as well as the drivers. They can’t see you and the brine sprays across three traffic lanes whether you are driving in them or not.

The “strike team” evokes images of an old Mad Max movie. I’d get out of their way in a hurry. The salt brine caught my attention, too. If it got on my hood, I’d obsess over it until I washed it off. While I’ve not had a lot of experience driving in snow, my 1997 F150 has. I’m not sure how long the Super Cab was up north. All I know is that it’s undercarriage is a rusty mess.

It’s the price paid for living in the snow. True, every environment is going to have its challenges. In Springfield and other snowy cities, however, they’re up against a pretty tough foe that can be unpredictable.

“Every event is different,” Bailey explains. “It may come in as a wet snow. It may come in as a dry snow. It might come in as a rain burst or ice burst.

“Everything–every situational aspect of how a winter event comes through can change the way we operate, whether it’s bringing in a small crew of 14 drivers or bringing in 20 and having all of them running the arterial routes, or bringing in the small crew and having them spread out on a normal route. It’s all dependent on how that particular system is going to come through our area.”

And when it does come, the plows will be ready.