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Honoring Berks veterans

Reading Eagle - 12/4/2023

Dec. 4—When PennDOT's Rick Stone describes the preparations for winter being carried out by the Berks County maintenance crew, it sounds similar to how a military leader would describe the never-ending job of readying a unit for mobilization.

Equipment is inspected and calibrated. Stockpiles are restocked. New personnel are brought up to speed as quickly as possible.

"Even in the summertime you're preparing," said Stone, PennDOT county equipment manager. "When winter ends you're already thinking about next year, so that's how it kind of works. You really try to be ready for (the season ahead).

"So summertime, it's lick our wounds, fix our equipment, get everything ready, do our after-action reviews, see if you can learn anything from the previous winter. Make things better."

And like a military outfit, road maintenance crews are constantly adapting to advances in technology,

"We're always looking at it," Stone said. "That's at the forefront."

Last year around this time, PennDOT maintenance departments throughout the state prepared for a war that never came.

A snow drought that lasted pretty much the entire season kept stockpiles full.

The savings in the budget were poured into summer maintenance, allowing crews to pave more roads.

On the flip side, it meant newer personnel didn't get much experience on the plow trucks.

Help needed

For a few years, PennDOT has been battling on another front — staffing shortages. The Temple office has been hosting open houses every two weeks in which on-the-spot job interviews of walk-ins are available.

Statewide, PennDOT is seeking more than 700 temporary equipment operators statewide for the winter season to supplement the full-time staff.

Details on minimum requirements, such as possession of a commercial driver's license as well as application information, are available at employment.pa.gov. Through the same website, job seekers can apply for nearly 100 other non-operator winter positions such as diesel and construction equipment mechanics, welders, clerks and more.

Stone said new hires would typically come from the part-time or perhaps the seasonal ranks, but it's been a struggle just to fill the vacancies due to staff turnover from retirement, promotions and people leaving for other reasons. That means new workers are going straight to full-time, permanent employment, something unheard of two decades ago.

"I've never seen anything like it in 28 years," Stone said. "When I started they were waiting five years to get in."

Now, he said, he's constantly interviewing prospective employees just to get caught up on the shortage of full-time operators, and recently was trying to fill eight full-time positions and 15 temporary spots.

The turnover has resulted in a relatively green crew in Berks.

"We really haven't had a winter the last two winters so we've got kind of three years of rookies," said Stone, referring strictly to plowing snow. "We're trying to do as much as we can to get them as comfortable as we can with all of the equipment and technology."

PennDOT's Berks maintenance arsenal includes 41 snow-removal trucks, four tanker trucks, four tow plows along with other equipment, Stone said.

New operators are getting out on the road to get familiar with their routes and obstacles that will be hidden after a decent snowstorm, he said.

"Keeping our roads as safe as possible is a team effort, and we'd love to have people join our team," PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll said.

Carroll along with Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission CEO Mark Compton and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Director Randy Padfield held a media briefing recently to outline plans for winter services, highlight job opportunities and discuss how the public can prepare for the season.

"With winter weather ahead, preparation, planning and coordination are crucial, Compton said. "The agencies here today have spent all year meticulously planning and preparing our crews and resources so that when the first snowflakes fall, we can properly deploy what is needed and where."

Prepared public

Even if they're not going to work for PennDOT, members of the public can help by being prepared and informed, Compton said.

"We also know that you're planning ahead for winter driving is critical as well," he said. "Take the time now, if you haven't already done so, to be sure your vehicle is ready by checking your tires, wiper blades, battery and antifreeze."

The public can access travel information on nearly 40,000 state-maintained roadway miles at 511PA.com, and during the winter they can find plow truck locations and details of when state-maintained roads were last plowed.

The information is made possible by PennDOT's Automated Vehicle Location technology, which uses units in more than 2,600 department plow trucks to send a signal showing their locations.

With more than $197 million budgeted for this winter's statewide operations, PennDOT deploys about 4,700 on-the-road workers, has more than 700,000 tons of salt on hand across the state and will take salt deliveries throughout the winter.

In discussing traffic safety, Carroll announced that PennDOT is adding 15 variable speed limit, or VSL, signs, which quickly reduce speed limits when visibility or road conditions call for lower speeds. It brings the statewide total of VSL locations to 78, including 36 locations along Interstate 81 from Interstate 78 to Interstate 80 in Lebanon (five locations), Luzerne (seven locations) and Schuylkill (24 locations) counties.

VSL signs quickly reduce speed limits when visibility or roadway conditions present the need for more cautious driving. Preliminary results show this solution effectively slowed traffic 4-9 mph during winter road conditions at the 63 locations last winter.

"Road conditions during inclement winter weather can change very quickly, making it exceptionally important to have a reliable method of receiving timely updates about hazardous weather conditions," Padfield said. "It's always a good idea to make sure others know your estimated travel time, and have some basic emergency supplies in your car, like water and a phone charger, along with any specialized items needed for young children or pets."

Winter weather terms

Padfield said it's also important to know the difference between a weather watch and warning.

A watch means there is increased risk of a hazardous weather event, but its occurrence, location or timing is still uncertain. Pay attention to forecasts and plan out what you will do if/when it occurs.

A warning means the weather event is imminent or is happening. Take immediate action to protect lives and property.

In addition, snow squalls can often produce dangerous and deadly travel hazards on otherwise clear winter days. The National Weather Service now issues snow squall warnings that alert drivers of whiteout conditions and slippery roads so motorists can avoid traveling directly into these dangerous squalls.

Motorists should prepare for potential wintry weather by ensuring they have supplies in their cars before heading out: food, water, blankets, extra gloves and hats, cell phone charger, hand or foot warmers, windshield brush and scraper, and any specialized items like medications or baby and pet supplies. More tips and information including a complete winter guide is available on PennDOT's winter web page.

Tips for preparing your vehicles for winter

—Check that your fluid levels are full.

—Make sure your wipers don't streak. You may want to consider installing winter wiper blades.

—Ensure your heater and defroster are working properly.

—Check that your vehicle's radio is working properly so you can receive weather and traffic reports.

—Make sure all lights are working.

—Check to be sure tires are properly inflated and have sufficient tread depth.

—If you live in an area prone to heavy snow, you may want to use dedicated snow tires on your vehicle or carry a set of tire chains. At a minimum, your all-weather tires should be mud and snow rated.

Source: PennDOT

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