VANDALIA — Working outside in the elements can always be a challenge, but that’s especially true in the winter. In Vandalia, a dedicated staff of 19 employees works hard to keep the streets free of snow and ice, keep water flowing in aging pipes, patch asphalt and more regardless of season.
Steve Nickles has been in the city’s Public Works Department for 27 years and is currently the Superintendent of Public Works. He said the department’s employees are busy no matter the season keeping the city’s water, sewers, and streets in good repair.
Those jobs can range from snow plowing, salting, water main breaks, leaf collection, equipment maintenance, building maintenance, asphalt patching, digging graves, laying foundations for cemetery monuments, keeping manholes repaired, and more.
In the winter, plowing, salting, and asphalt repair keep the department hopping.
“We are out just about every day fixing potholes after these types of weather events,” said Nickels. “We also work on some equipment and building maintenance items that we put off in the summer months”
Water main breaks can be especially challenging in the winter months due to frigid temperatures. Still, the department tries to respond to every report of a break within 24 hours, even on weekends.
While a repair can take around six hours to repair, there can be a delay waiting on other utilities such as Vectren and DP&L.
“By law, we can’t dig until they mark the utilities,” said Nickels.
Staying warm can be a challenge but there are tricks to the trade.
“I always like to get in the hole,” said Nickels. “You get wet, when you get out of the hole your clothes freeze to you. The ground is warmer than the air, the water is warmer. The guys take turns getting in and out of the hole and we have a truck with a heater to thaw them out.”
“One guy is always on top watching to make sure nothing caves in,” said Rob Cron, the department’s Director. “Typical breaks are in the street. Anything we do in the winter is just harder.” Everything takes longer when its cold. The equipment takes longer to get warmed up and ready to go, and safety of our crews is always the top priority.”
Snow storms can present their own challenges with many variables including types of precipitation, changing temperatures, wind, and timing.
The city operates six snow plow trucks which work in 10-12 hour shifts in significant weather events.
“With a four-inch snow, once it quits snowing, we should have the side streets open within 12 hours,” said Nickels. “While it is snowing, we focus on the main routes so if it snows for four hours it could take longer to get to the side streets.”
“We keep someone out 24 hours,” said Cron.
The city uses around 1,800 tons of salt each year and in the latest snow/ice event, when it snowed, rained, and then snowed again, 475 tons were used.
Drifting snow also presents hazards especially on N. Dixie Drive, the Airport Access Road, and ramps near the airport.
Cron, who has worked for the city for 25 years, said the warmer months bring different types of road repairs.
“We go through all the streets we are resurfacing each year and our guys go through and repair the manholes and catch basins to prepare for resurfacing,” said Rob Cron.
Throughout all the challenging work, the Vandalia Public Works Department has developed a reputation for its safety record. The department has been recognized for zero losses for 21 consecutive years by the Miami Valley Risk Management Association, the organization that insures Vandalia and other local municipalities.
Nickels credited training for that record.
“It is the training, and we have a policy where we look after each other,” said Nickels. “It doesn’t matter what your rank is – if you see something not safe, you let me know. We watch each other. Sometimes things we are doing take longer, but at the end of the day we all go home in one piece – I can live with that.”
Cron said that training is important, but the city council and residents deserve credit as well.
“Part of it is the training, but part of it is that council and the citizens of the city have given us the equipment we need to do what’s required in the safest way possible,” he said. “Nobody questions when we are buying items related to safety.”
Reach Darrell Wacker at 937-684-8983 or on Twitter @VandaliaDrummer.