Friday February 9, 2018

Tom Kells: DPW Chief Leads Restructured Department

24-7 operation proves more effective during winter
By Lou Sorendo

    Tom Kells

    Q.: What do your tasks consist of as commissioner?


    A.: The day-to-day operations of the DPW are pretty vast and tasks depend on the time of year. We take care of the water plant as well as the infrastructure part of water, sewer infrastructure, all city facilities and buildings, streets, parks, playgrounds, marinas, ice rinks and the pool.


    We have supervisors that are specific to each of those departments, but in the wintertime, they all come together. Our primary goal in the winter is obviously snow removal and care, and we have to take care of water breaks. Our sewer crews also take care of problems that include water not getting to catch basins.


    Mayor William “Billy” Barlow and the council have been really good in giving us equipment that we need. Since I’ve come in, we’ve bought four new plow trucks.


    We had old trucks, and when we had six or seven trucks on the road during a storm, two would break down because of their age.


    Q.: What types of changes have you made since your arrival in the position in 2016?


    A.: This is my third winter season. The first two were very easy and weren’t bad winters. This one obviously is a little more challenging. We’ve gone to a 24-7 operation this year, which was not done in the past.


    We’re being proactive instead of reactive. We are in front of storms by pre-salting versus being reactive and coming in after it’s already been snowing for one to two hours, especially on the weekends. We previously had no coverage on the weekends.


    They used to have just a Monday through Friday crew on in the morning from 7-to-3 then a night shift from 11-to-7.


    People were called in to work overtime to fill the middle shift, and then on weekends, it was 100 percent overtime with half the crew having to be called in. The challenge of that sometimes is getting people to come in.


    Everybody isn’t on schedule, so they might have someplace they’re going and that became quite challenging.


    Q.: Was a complete restructuring needed?


    A.: Pretty much. Instead of basically taking 55 snow response personnel and making them into two crews, we split them into six crews. That really limits the size of those crews. When you have a bad storm, one of those crews is not enough, but the way they overlap, we usually have two and also can call people in. It’s easier to call four of five guys to come in versus 16 to 22 guys. We’re always guaranteed at least approximately eight guys, and half the time, we have 16 guys and then we call in from there.


    Q.: How did your staff react to the changes?


    A.: A lot of the changes we’ve done haven’t been received well by our staff. Now all of a sudden, you have to tell guys to be available 24-7 or that they need to come in this Saturday. That’s not always a very welcoming, happy decision. It goes back to the saying, “We’ve always done it that way and it worked.” On a weekend, when we should have 16 or 17 guys and only four guys come in, that does not work for me. Fire, ambulance and police units have to be able to respond to the public, and they are only as good as us.


    Q.: How has technology affected the department?


    A.: We recently installed GPS on all our equipment for several reasons. We can evaluate plow routes, know where are trucks are and protect our assets. It allows us to evaluate why it takes longer on one route than another.


    GPS can even determine how fast a truck is going and how long a truck has been running. It’s there to protect the workforce as well as build accountability.


    Q.: From a logistics standpoint, what are the more challenging aspects of snow removal, particularly when it comes in the form of relentless lake-effect snow?


    A.: We always put trucks on the road, and we don’t wait until a storm stops. We have trucks out responding all the time, but they might not be plowing. They might be just salting, and that depends on how fast the snow is coming down.


    The biggest challenge is traffic. If it’s the middle of the day during the week and traffic is heavy and snow is coming down, our response time to cover the amount of street miles that we have is hindered by that.


    Cars in the street are a major slowdown and present safety issues in a lot of ways. We have to sometimes back up a street because cars are parked on both sides, and sometimes just a regular pickup truck or car has a hard time getting down that street. That’s really something the public can help us with is recognizing that if a car is on one side of the street, don’t park directly across from it. Give some room, not only for us, but for emergency vehicles. If we can’t fit a plow truck, there’s a good chance that the fire truck can’t also.


    Q.: How is the off street parking regulation working out?


    A.: Overnight parking in Oswego during the winter is completely off street, and there is a process where people can apply for on street parking if they can show they don’t have a driveway. It is a permit process. My feeling on the off-street regulation is it’s worked pretty well. We need to accommodate the person who has nothing.


    If there are cars in the street, the plow comes and we all know he has to swing out and around them and leave snow on the road. That driver has to remember that sometimes during his shift, he has to come back and hit those streets again. Hopefully, that car has moved to allow us to get that snow off the street.


    We hear the public say, “The plow didn’t come down my street.” And that’s true if there are cars on both sides and it can’t fit.


    Q.: Where does snow plowing start during an intense winter storm?


    A.: Snow removal starts in the city’s hub and its main arteries of Bridge and Utica streets. We work our way out from there.


    People on the outskirts sometimes don’t see us for quite a while, but that has gotten better. It’s still totally depends on the duration and the way the storm comes down. If it’s a continuous storm that goes on for days and days with just a little reprieve for a few hours, that makes it very difficult. Instead of a driver being able to go through his total route, halfway through he is coming back and hitting the mains again. People can’t go anywhere if Bridge Street isn’t plowed, and the main arteries need to be done more often.


    Q.: How can the community help the cause of the DPW during the winter season?


    A.: The community can help by keeping sidewalks and crosswalks clear as well as fire hydrants.


    We totally realize how frustrating it is for someone’s driveway to be filled after he or she just got done shoveling. Obviously, if you have to shovel to get out, that’s great. My recommendation is if you don’t, wait a little while and let us get the streets clear and then remove your snow.