Just as the night began to fall, the first snowfall of the New Year came Jan. 1 for residents across Cass County.
For the city of Harrisonville’s Street Department, that meant crews had to shorten their holiday break to get the roads plowed throughout the evening and overnight hours so drivers could safely get home from their travels or ready for the morning commute as many headed back to work.
When severe winter weather is approaching, Street Superintendent Rodney Jacobs’ first order of business is to make sure he has a crew around.
“Tonight, when it looked like the snow was going to hit, I contacted everybody and told them the way I thought it was going to turn out,” Jacobs said.
He organized his staff to come in at staggered times so they could get some proper rest before morning.
The preparation also includes studying the forecast and making sure the trucks are loaded with equipment.
Jacobs got into his snow plow just before 7 p.m., about 30 minutes after the snow began to fall in Harrisonville.
Two other foremen for the department were already at work. Additional crews were scheduled to come on between 1 and 2 a.m., when the precipitation was forecast to end, and to allow the earlier shift to get rest before coming back in the morning.
Jacobs tries not to work his crews for more than 12 hours.
“Days like today it’s a little tough because I know those guys didn’t sleep,” he said.
The department’s manpower is limited with only eight individuals.
After climbing into his bright, orange plow, Jacobs flips on the flashing, circling amber yellow emergency strobe lights fixed at the top of his vehicle.
Soon, clouds of snow began to hit the street edges and curbs as Jacobs worked on clearing streets through the city.
Jacobs is no stranger to this work. He’s been full-time with the city since 1975 and has spent many winter days and nights clearing the 147 lane miles of Harrisonville’s roads.
On this cold, snowy night, the cab of the plow stays toasty warm as Jacobs maneuvers through different areas of town – paying particular attention to steep hills and emergency snow routes before hitting up several neighborhoods in town.
In slick spots, he drops a half-and-half mixture of salt and sand.
As the night goes on, Jacobs turns on the weather radio in the plow to hear an update from the National Weather Service. The NWS reports a winter weather advisory for blowing snow – which was an evident condition from the road.
“Every snow is different,” Jacobs remarks, noting the timing and magnitude of the storm are all factors in determining how he and his crew will organize their plan of attack in clearing the roads.
The type of snow that falls – whether wet or dry – will also determine how the roads will be affected. During the initial period of snowfall, Harrisonville crews will focus on emergency routes and key problem areas.
“They’ll work on the ones we know people have problems with,” Jacobs said.
Crews also occasionally receive reports from police dispatch about any other areas causing issues.
“We’ll try to get a pass at everything,” he said. “We’re kind of just maintaining until the snow stops.”
After the snowfall is through, crews will then focus on making secondary roads and residential streets more accessible. Crews will plow cul-de-sacs last.
“After the snow stops, we break (the city) down into four different sections,” Jacobs said. “A truck stays in that section.”
Residential areas with narrow streets and lots of vehicles parked on the road can be difficult for novice drivers.
“If you don’t think you can make it, don’t try,” Jacobs tells his crews.
There is one thing residents can do to help the snow plow crews, Jacobs said. That is parking their vehicles off the street.
“That’s the one thing that helps us more than anything,” he said, “Especially in deep snow.”
Even the most experienced also have to stay humble on the job as slip-ups happen.
“It’s usually in the deep snow that you lose your bearings,” Jacobs said.
Last year, Jacobs got stuck when he was turning his truck around and slipped into a ditch.
“That’s embarrassing,” he said.
After more than three hours in the plow, Jacobs heads back to his shop for a quick break to check-in with another driver, grab a cup of coffee and to check the weather radar.
Within a few minutes, Jacobs is back in the plow and back at work until the early morning hours.
In 2013, Harrisonville crews worked nine snow events, totaling about 30 inches of snowfall.
Each storm costs a pretty penny, too, especially when plows, like the one Jacobs drives, only gets seven miles to a gallon of fuel.
Add in personnel, sand, and salt costs, too many snow episodes could put a city like Harrisonville in a financial pinch that is hard to melt.
“In 2013, we spent $14,650 for salt and sand, 1,646 gallons of fuel, 578 hours in labor, treated 4,965 lane miles,” Jacobs said.
In the second snow event of 2014, a storm that hit last weekend cost the city more than $6,400 for 177 gallons of fuel, sand and salt, and 85 hours of labor.