Mr. Plow

City of St. John's snow plow operator Terry Bennett.

A small blue car slides across the buried centre line and into the oncoming lane as it passes Terry Bennett’s giant green City of St. John’s snow plow.

“What’s your hurry?” Bennett says to the car as it sloshes through brown slush on Kenmount Road. A glob of brown slush splatters against the windshield.

“I don’t get people. I’d rather be behind the plow.”

In Bennett’s plow, where the rubber of the city’s complex snow clearing program meets the road, there is a disconnection between snow plowing as it is often perceived—as a big, abstract technical and political problem—and the day-to-day work that Bennett does.

The Streets Division is responsible for clearing St. John’s average annual dump of 322 cm of snow off roughly 1250 km of streets and 133 km of sidewalks. It’s a huge undertaking, tackled by more than 180 operators like Bennett. They scrape, plow, blow snow and spread about 30,000 tonnes of salt each year.

Snow clearing will cost the city over $15 million in 2012, which makes it the third largest budget line after debenture debt charges (almost $28 million) and fire protection (almost $20 million). It also accounts for more than half the Streets Division’s entire budget.

Because it’s such a big task, it makes sense that it’s also a big deal. Perhaps more than anywhere else, snow clearing is a major political issue in St. John’s. In 2001, during our snowiest winter of all-time, people were throwing themselves in front of plows to protect their freshly shoveled driveways. They threw beer bottles at plow drivers as they went by, and one even threw punches at a worker who was on foot, spotting for a city snowblower. Lately though, with the more typical winters we’ve had since, a lack of sidewalk clearing has caused the most commotion. With so much snow, sidewalks are often buried by city plows, leaving pedestrians to walk on the streets. In November 2011 the sidewalks issue dominated city pre-budget consultations, and in December the Essential Transit Association advocacy group organized a public rally on the issue. The city responded by doubling the sidewalk snow clearing budget.

In the truck, Bennett is most definitely aware that snow clearing is a sensitive issue here. He says he tries his best to finesse the giant piles of snow pushed by his giant truck away from freshly shoveled driveways—nevertheless, he’s often on the receiving end of glares from people out shoveling as he goes by.

But, all things considered, here in the truck he isn’t concerned with the bigger systemic or political issues that surround snow clearing, he’s concerned with getting snow off the street. He’s concerned with maneuvering through St. John’s traffic in a truck 10-times the size of anything else on the road. He’s concerned that the salt spreader might be jammed. Or he’s content to just go about his business, plowing, and salting.

Like the Streets Division managers I met with a few weeks earlier, Bennett talks about the looming labour shortage, and how stressful, thankless, and dangerous the work can be.

But from where he sits there is more of an immediate and palpable upside to it. As an operator, there is satisfaction in doing a job safely and well, and in the camaraderie: the nicknames—“Tub” loaded “Jocko’s” truck with salt so he could go salt the route “Sweat” was plowing—and jokes over the radio.

The view from the cockpit.

“I’ve done everything,” Bennett says.

It’s been 35 years since he got his start working for the city. He began as a seasonal worker, and now he is one of the city’s most senior heavy equipment operators and driving some of the biggest, loudest, roughest, and most complicated machines in the city’s fleet. He’s also on the executive of the union, and last municipal election he ran for Ward Three councillor.

“I lost to Bruce Tilley,” he says. “It went really well though, I got 1,866 votes on my first try.”

A few months later Bennett had a stroke.

“I’m doing great now though,” he says, and promises to run for office again in two years—around the time he figures he’ll want to retire.

Bennett drives one of the city’s two biggest plow trucks: a $375,000 “tandem-tandem”—two axles in the front, two axles in the back. It has brine tanks and sprayer, a salt hopper and spreader, a front blade, and a wing blade on the passenger side. It’s covered with what looks like more gauges, switches, knobs, buttons, and levers than a NASA lunar module cockpit. There are two joysticks, one for the front blade, one for the wing blade, that Bennett plays like Pac-Man. There’s a video monitor connected to cameras on the back and on passenger side, and there is another monitor that monitors most everything else, including salt or brine loads. But even with all these do-dads, Bennett still finds the most reliable way to know the salt spreader is working is to roll down his window and listen for the twinkling of the salt on the passing cars.

The truck is big, loud, and bumpy like any big rig. Between the roar of the engine, the constant beeps, buzzes, and squeals of different warning systems, and the constant garble of other plow operators on the radio, Bennett and I have to shout back and forth at one another.

Then there are the bumps—both the ordinary hit-your-head-on-the-padded-ceiling pothole variety, and curbs. Curbs are the worst enemy of snow plow drivers, and have a tendency of hiding under snow banks. They can jump up when you least expect them, Bennett says. When they grab the plow blade, they can bring things to an abrupt, jarring, halt.

The tandem-tandem, one of the city’s biggest plow trucks.

A few weeks earlier I sat in a city depot boardroom across a long table, tribunal-style, from three managers, the big boss of the Streets and Parks, and two operations assistants—the general and two colonials in the city’s war on snow. All three speak in a sort of jargon-laced managerial officialese: a blizzard becomes a “snow event,” which is responded to with an “operation” of “heavy equipment” performing “ice control measures,” “cutting,” “widening,” and “blowing back” the “wide-back” to the curb of “high-service, multi-lane, high-speed” “priority one” “routes” in order to provide sufficient “snow storage” for the next “snow event.”

It’s all I can do to keep up.

Through this unique technical language, and the kind of snow clearing management common sense that goes with it, the practical problem of pushing snow off the streets and sidewalks so people can get around becomes abstract and complex.

This keeps the managers at a safe distance from both external political pressure and the practical messiness of plowing snow, which keeps their work focused on their particular role in this complex system, but it also means that significant changes to the way things are done—to sidewalk clearing for instance—won’t come from a city depot board room.

The way things are done is the way they’ve been designed to be done, according to the system.

Up in his truck Bennett is also kept at a safe distance from the tangly business of coordinating snow clearing and dealing with the public backlash. He gets the glares first hand, but, at the end of the day none of it is really about snow or streets or sidewalks at all.

“It’s a job,” he says. “Work. Go home. Hope the Leafs win the Cup.”

 

6 comments

  1. Sarah · March 27, 2011

    Loved this! It’s so easy to vilify the faceless plow driver (I admit, I have glared from my freshly shovelled driveway). Ultimately, they’re just trying to pay the bills like everyone else.

  2. Aaron · March 27, 2011

    That tandem-tandem is a beaut!

  3. D. · March 27, 2011

    Great writing, interesting story.

  4. Terry Bennett · March 27, 2011

    Great job on the article Morgan , glad to have had you along for the ride , we’ll do it again sometime , thanks !!!!

  5. Morgan Murray · March 27, 2011

    Thanks Terry! It was a blast. I just hope you won’t be plowing any more snow for a very, very long time.

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