Riders on the storm

A night with snowplow drivers reveals how Fairfield’s roads are cleared

Day or night, in snow or ice, Fairfield's Public Works Department has plows ready to clear the roads. (Rich Pittera Photo)

Day or night, in snow or ice, Fairfield’s Public Works Department has plows ready to clear the roads. (Rich Pittera Photo)

It’s every child’s instinct during a snowstorm. When the low rumble and the clinking of the chains become audible, followed by the flashing of the orange strobe light, they run to the window with curious eyes.

The plow man has arrived.

New England weather brings every kind of snow. From heavy and wet downpours to a light fall with heavy wind, every storm brings different obstacles. While the weather in Fairfield County is never predictable, one thing has been certain for generations — the plow man will be there to turn snow-covered asphalt into drivable lanes of passage.

In the year’s first large snowstorm in January, the Fairfield Department of Public Works allowed me to ride along during the night with a couple of its plow drivers. A six-hour ride-along was spent with two drivers, Kevin (who did not want his last name used), who plows the area from the downtown Metro-North train station to the beach area near the South Benson Marina, and Paul Weiss, who is assigned a large portion of the Greenfield Hills area.

During the ride-along Kevin and Paul showed the ropes of being a plow driver for the town of Fairfield. For example, part of Kevin’s route includes the New England Avenue area, his most treacherous streets. With a steep grade and a sharp turn with a car parked at the bottom, Kevin put his 20-year-old truck into first gear and headed down. Despite being in a vehicle designed to remove snow, it was hard not to brace yourself as the truck’s traction would go in and out all the way down.

Paul, a seasoned employee for the town’s DPW, drives one of Fairfield’s two 10-wheel trucks. Paul is the kind of guy who truly enjoys his job. Plowing is like an art form to Paul. Despite sitting in a seat clearly not designed for comfort, Paul took pride in the way he cleared the streets for his section’s residents. He told stories of residents who would wave him down to offer food and beverages, or just to thank him for working. At one point in our trip, he took the extra time to clear the snow at the end of an elderly person’s driveway.

Both drivers explained obstacles to their jobs, including areas where cars were parked in the road and times when cars would sneak up behind them when they needed to back up, and when the snow would come down so hard that visibility would get close to zero.

Both drivers said they commonly hear complaints that streets are not plowed quickly enough. It may seem that a street is getting ignored, but there is a science behind the order. The town divides its streets into more than 30 sections. Both town DPW workers and contracted truck drivers are assigned to one section for which they are solely responsible. Occasionally, drivers help each other out with streets on the borders of each section, but for the most part every time a plow comes down your street it is the same driver, storm after storm.

The primary reason is safety. Each time a plow hits an even slightly raised manhole or obstacle in the road there is a vicious jolt. The plow has a mechanism to fold over when it hits an obstacle; however, the jolt is still enough to throw the driver around and damage the truck. Drivers have memorized where these spots are in their section and know when to slow down.

Additionally, each section has its streets broken down by importance. There are main roads, secondary roads, then cul-de-sacs and dead ends, with the main roads getting priority. During a storm, the plows’ first objective is not to clear the streets for residents but to make sure emergency vehicles can travel. In fact, it is preferred that residents stay off the road.

Another common complaint is that plows are sometimes seen driving with their blade “up” while there is snow still on the ground. The explanation is that town plows are not allowed to move snow on state roads, such as Stratfield Road, Black Rock Turnpike and the Post Road. Drivers are told simply to raise their plows when they cross a state road intersection.

While adults want to be able to get to whereever they need to be, kids have a polar opposite view. In the mind of a child, the only thing that matters is whether they will be in school. While the people driving the plows have no say in the decision, their job is a huge factor.

The decision of early dismissal, cancellation and closure of Fairfield public and parochial schools ultimately comes down to Superintendent Dr. David Title. Title makes his decision, in part, based on the recommendations from department heads, such as Superintendent of Public Works Scott Bartlett.

Bartlett said it takes his crew six hours from the time the snowstorm ends to completely clear Fairfield’s streets. This includes bringing in the smaller pickup trucks that plow intersections and do touch-up work. If a storm through the night ends in the early morning, Bartlett may tell Title that his crew could use a couple of extra hours to finish their job and a delay will be issued. If the storm occurs during the day, Bartlett may advise Title that his crews will not be able to have the streets completely cleared for buses to safely pick up and drop off students.

While many want the streets cleared quickly and others don’t, no matter what, the plow drivers are at work. Whether it’s a matter of hours or days, the men and women of the DPW are doing whatever it takes to get you back on the road.

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