Editorial: Worcester’s study of DPW&P winter missteps will ensure fewer slips, slides — but leaves one critical question

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The calendar says autumn starts on Sept. 22. However, a recent communication from Worcester City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. already has us thinking about winter.

Edward M. Augustus Jr.

Courtesy NAMI Mass

Edward M. Augustus Jr.

Augustus released the results of the city’s top-to-bottom review of its winter operations after high-profile failures last winter.

The city formed a Winter Operations Committee comprising Department of Public Works and Parks Commissioner Paul J. Moosey, Assistant Commissioner Matthew Labovites, Hopkinton Director of Public Works John K. Westerling, former DPW&P commissioner Robert L. Moylan, Emergency Communications and Emergency Management Director Richard H. Fiske, and Assistant City Manager and Human Resources Director Kathleen G. Johnson.

The 28-page report identifies four vulnerabilities: fleet size, vacant positions, reliance on old methods and communication.

To address the vulnerabilities, the committee recommends a long-term capital plan for additional equipment, raising the hourly rates for outside contractors, prioritize hiring, continuing recruitment and training efforts, raising starting pay, hiring two new snow operations coordinators, pretreatment of main roads prior to snowfall, formalizing communication between DPW&P and other city agencies, and allowing up-to-the-minute information to the public through press, social media and text alerts.

The City Council in May authorized the purchase of additional snow removal equipment. However, in an interview with the Sun at the time, Moosey said, “We’ll be lucky if it’s any additional trucks by the time the dust settles. It’s possible we could lose that many [three] to major breakdowns.”

While the city adds to its fleet of heavy-duty trucks, many may be on their last legs.

Patrick Sargent / For Worcester Sun

While the city adds to its fleet of heavy-duty trucks, many may be on their last legs.

The report notes problems with the age of Worcester’s current fleet. “The Public Works industry has recognized 10 years as the useful life for this type of equipment, as has the DPW&P in its utility inventory. Currently, 21 or 52 [percent] of this fleet is over 10 years old and 14 or 35 [percent] of the fleet is over 15 years old,” the report states.

The report also states the city and hired contractors face a similar problem in hiring and maintaining qualified snow removal staff. “There is always a natural cycle of retirements, resignations, and re-hiring but the difficulty in attracting and retaining suitable candidates has most definitely intensified in the last 5 [to] 10 years,” the report states. This has led to vacant positions at the DPW&P and intensified the competition for hired contractors.

The report shows that Worcester, while paying more than some cities, pays less than the rate offered by the Mass. Department of Transportation. Raising the rates for outside contractors and intensifying efforts at recruiting, training and retaining employees will lead to better snow removal.

A major change to previous protocols involves pretreating roadways with a brine solution. This is possible because of a brine maker purchased this year.

“This treatment will be a liquid brine that can be applied well in advance of a snow event and remain effective,” the report states. “In the past, DPW&P has applied salt at the start of a snowfall to act as a pretreatment. The purpose of any pretreatment is to melt the initial portion of a snowfall thereby extending the time road conditions remain unaffected. … Because it can be applied in advance, a larger amount of street miles can be treated than could be accomplished with salt that has to be spread as snow starts to fall.”

The thoroughness of the report addresses specific concerns and offers specific relief. It makes clear that the problems that surfaced last year were long in the making.

However, while offering recommendations, it fails to adequately address how it came to be that the department that received praise for the handling of record snowfall in the winter of 2014-15 could come up so short the very next year.

This remains a question the residents of Worcester deserve to have answered.

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