The crew foreman on Tuesday afternoon was Larry Mitchell, who will complete 20 years with the department in May. He drives a one-ton pickup with a blade attached on the front and a V-box for spreading salt on the back.
The city had its full snow moving crew deployed Tuesday afternoon, which according to Mitchell, includes six dump trucks with blades, two backhoes clearing intersections, the man spreading the melting agent on the bridges and Street Superintendent Russ Balmas driving the grader.
Like all the other snow removers, Mitchell has a specified route. Tuesday's conditions dictated a more restricted focus on keeping major routes open to industries and Cox Monett Hospital. Mitchell spent his time on Broadway, the bridges at Eisenhower and 13th, County Road and Cleveland.
"I don't get in too big a hurry," Mitchell said. "I don't want to crash. I'm pushing a pretty big pile."
The one-ton pickup pushed the corner of its blade into the pile on the edge of the street. The blade itself is invisible over the edge of the truck's hood. Two orange rods stick up from the edges of the blade, providing the only indicator of where the blade sits.
At one point Mitchell has to stop to scrape his windshield. He explained snow occasionally splatters over the top of the blade onto his window, more often if he goes faster. He ran his defroster at full blast to keep his window clear but at the same time had to roll his outside window door to keep from personally overheating in his winter gear.
Mitchell kept the edge of his blade in the snow. Turning around into a bigger embankment, his blade filled up and snapped down, dumping its contents. Mitchell explained the blades are spring loaded and will automatically empty if overloaded.
"When it does that, it will shoot you off in a yard," Mitchell said.
Control is especially crucial when plowing crews move into residential areas where cars have parked alongside the sides of the road.
"The big thing is watching out for the public," he said. "If they can get in your way, they will, even if they don't do it intentionally."
Serious accidents occur rarely. Mitchell attributed the experience of seasoned city workers for avoiding most incidents.
"If you slide off into a ditch, you could easily lay a truck over," Mitchell said. "I haven't had that happen, but it could."
There is a camaraderie between drivers. Radio traffic provides status checks between the trucks. Mitchell keeps the driver spreading the Geomelt beet juice on the bridges informed of his passes, so the anti-freezing agent can be reapplied. Drivers wave to each other as they pass on opposite sides of the street.
"My job as crew leader is to look out for the staff," Mitchell said. "If one of them has a problem and I can't take care of it myself, I'll get a bigger truck out there. Everybody has been here long enough to know what to do. It's not their first rodeo."
Mitchell said using the same trucks and running the same routes provides his crews with a knowledge of where the manholes drop and roads curve.
At shift change, drivers go over issues the vehicles might be having, such as light problems or overheating, so the next driver knows what to expect. Bearings tend to go out on the spinner shafts on the V-boxes that spread salt, requiring an extra shot of grease between shifts.
One major improvement for crews in the last two winters has been the bridge over the railroad tracks at Eisenhower. The old steep hill left vivid memories for Mitchell.
"I had a few stupid attacks when I was new," Mitchell recalled. "I tried to drive straight down it. I learned not to do that. I went down it sideways. We used to back up the hill and spread material on it."
These days crews spread salt and calcium on streets to melt ice accumulations. Gone are the days of spreading cinders or gravel at intersections for traction.
"The equipment is greatly improved now. We're a little more scientific about it," he said.
In icy conditions, Mitchell said the salt and calcium works well, but the trick is getting back to clear the road before the ice refreezes.
"When I first started, I just loved to push snow," Mitchell said. "Now, not so much. After a few years, you get tired of it. Mentally, the job will wear you out. You have to watch for so much stuff."
Mitchell lives near Freistatt and wondered if he would be able to get home when his shift ended at 11 p.m. He said the city had set up cots in the City Park Casino for those who had travel issues.
On a heavy snow day like Tuesday, Mitchell said crews don't take regular breaks. Some days even dinner breaks are staggered so there are always some trucks on the road.
As the snow lets up, Mitchell said one route may get finished first, since not all the sections are the same size. Then drivers will double up on the same section so everyone can finish by shift change.
"If I have my choice, I'd stay home and watch the snow, but someone has to clear it," Mitchell said.