On the Job: Mr. Plow

photo by Eric Tadsen
Neither snow, nor sleet, nor lack of sleep, nor one-finger salutes will keep Leroy Grieshammer from loving his job with the Madison Streets Division.

“Tonight, I hope to get to bed about 7 p.m., get up around 10:30, get back into work by midnight, and work straight through ’til 3 p.m. tomorrow,” said snow plow driver Leroy Grieshammer, a Street Machine Operator III for the city of Madison. On a Thursday morning still choked with traffic due to an ongoing storm, Grieshammer, 43, is anticipating the 24 hours after his regular shift ends at 3 p.m. this afternoon.

With a storm imminent, the 12-year veteran planned well the night before. “I tried to get a lot of sleep and had to find someone to watch my son while I’m out. I packed more food for lunch and had to make arrangements for all the animals we have at home.”

Grieshammer’s numerous trips between the West Badger Road office and his home south of Belleville have become routine, though he admits they can be difficult on just a few hours sleep. Still, he loves his job.

“It’s beautiful out here,” he said. “Some nights, you’re the only one out on the road.”

One of nearly 150 operators employed by the city (including 11 women), Grieshammer started as a garbage picker, worked his way up, and his current designation now allows him to run any of the division’s large vehicles.

This storm began overnight. At 2:40 a.m., drivers were called in, and by 3 a.m., 30 units were out salting city streets. In Madison, salt is dispersed as a liquid because it is mixed with a salt brine solution which starts the melting process sooner. “It is super cheap and keeps snow from bonding to the road,” Grieshammer said.

The dump truck he drives this day registers about 80,000 miles on its odometer. (The city typically replaces vehicles after 10 years, or between 110,000 and 120,000 miles.) Like a pilot inspects his plane before takeoff, Grieshammer must first conduct a 100-point CDL safety inspection on his truck, checking everything from window washer fluid to lug nuts. Then, as he pulls out onto Fish Hatchery Road, traffic slows. “Traffic is our biggest problem,” he said. “It makes it hard to get anywhere. The snow gets packed down before we can get to it.”

Heading toward the Maple Grove area on Madison’s west side, he thinks aloud: “I wish we had chains on the tires.” Chains, he explains, are on order, and will provide the traction necessary to move through the city more quickly and push more snow. “We’ve been trying to get chains for five to six years.”

When a snowfall occurs, workers first clear the “salt routes” — bus routes and roads leading to and from fire and police stations and hospitals. The city has 30 different salt routes, each about 30 miles long. When all of the city’s trucks are out, 900 road miles can be plowed in two hours; on a good day, that is.

As his truck lumbers along, Grieshammer checks his route map and a legal-sized document telling him exactly where to turn left or right along the route. It’s cumbersome and awkward. “This is very challenging at night, to read the route sheet and stay awake, but one of the hardest things is being tired at night and being mesmerized by snow coming at you.” Some city trucks are being outfitted with Garmins to eliminate the need for paper instructions, a welcome upgrade.

Dane County, not the city, is responsible for clearing the Beltline, the Interstate, and all county highways, and the amount of salt it uses differs significantly from that used by the city. Chris Kelley, operations manager for the City of Madison Streets Division, explained that the State has a “bare pavement” policy with Dane County which allows the county to dump high levels of salt on its main thoroughfares so the roads are down to bare pavement within a mandated timeframe.

John Marshall, public works general supervisor, a 33-year veteran in the city Streets Department, said, “I’ve heard their mandate is 600 pounds per two-lane mile, but when you talk to their people, it might be 800 or 900 pounds.”

Contrast that with the City of Madison, which operates under much more stringent salt-use parameters, after decisions made in the 1970s determined that the city was over-salting and putting area lakes at risk.

“We don’t have a bare pavement mandate, and we typically use 300 pounds of salt per two-lane mile,” said Kelley, adding that a typical storm costs about $300,000, a third of which usually involves contracted services.
Back on the road, this day’s weather is considered “an ideal storm” (though drivers may disagree) with light, fluffy snow accumulating to nearly seven inches. Because the outside temperatures exceed 15 degrees, operators know the salt they are laying down will do its job. If temps dip below 15 degrees, they bring out the sand.

Grieshammer said he gets frustrated by traffic, parked cars, and tailgaters. “Everyone’s in too much of a hurry,” he said. “Our streets are pretty narrow in places, so just getting through can be a challenge.” He has had equally frustrated individuals honk horns, flip “the bird,” or even throw shovels at his vehicle after he plows them in. Surprisingly, Grieshammer believes behavior overall has improved in recent years.

Traffic can actually be beneficial, he explained. “Traffic is always a plus when you have salt down because it grinds it in.” But when traffic packs snow down before the plows can clear what’s already been laid down, ice can form.

Salt, Grieshammer explained, is dropped in the center, or crown, of a road, so it melts to either side, and should sit for about 90 minutes before being scraped off. That explains why he avoids driving over a center swath of gray, slushy snow on a neighborhood street — evidence of another driver’s work.

With each operator assigned specific routes, there are ground rules. “You don’t want your salt to fall outside your tires, and you don’t put your plow down on someone else’s route because another driver might have just laid salt down. You don’t want to scrape it off before it’s had time to work.”

Relative to the rest of the year, operators really don’t get to plow snow that often, and with each storm being different, Greishammer, once a warehouse worker for American TV, said he learns something new every year.
As a member of Local 236, Grieshammer earns $24.16 per hour. His contract specifies that after eight hours, he will earn time and a half, and double-time after 12 hours on the job. “I love the winter,” he said. “[Workwise,] we put in a lot of hours, but the overtime is great. It’s very challenging as far as sleep goes, though.” During December’s 17-inch storm, he worked four 16-hour shifts back-to-back, getting about four hours of sleep a night.

Grieshammer said the city’s hiring process includes several months of training on a seasonal basis. “It’s a trial period. They want to know that your attendance and personality are good, and that you can work well with others. Then there’s a test when a full-time position opens up. The benefits are great and you work with great people.” And you’d better have a stellar driving record.

When this storm winds down, Grieshammer will help in the city-wide general plowing effort to clear all city roads. The rest of the week, he’ll likely help remove snow from intersections, clear vision hazards, and pick up Christmas trees. “Removing snow with one of our loaders is my favorite thing to do,” he smiled. “It’s fun, and you really feel you’re getting a lot accomplished.”

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