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Where to put plows during big snow?

January 20, 2011

County Highway Superintendent Mark Mitchel

    After a long talk at Tuesday's session of the Adams County commissioners involving the five fire departments in the county, the Emergency Medical Service, and the county highway department, it was decided to announce a decision at next Monday's commissioners' meeting about how to allocate county snowplows to help get fire trucks and ambulances through deep snow.
    The discussion included commissioners Ed Coil, Kim Fruechte, and Doug Bauman, County Auditor Bill Borne, County Attorney Mark Burry, Decatur Fire Chief Les Marckel, Berne Fire Chief Bill Grimm, Monroe Fire Chief Russell Cook, Preble Fire Chief Dan Elzey, veteran Geneva firefighter Ivan Nevil (a former Genevachief), County Highway Superintendent Mark Mitchel, County Emergency Medical Service Director Ed Ford, and County Emergency Management Director John August.
    Mitchel opened by saying that, in the past four and half years, his department has lost four people (three retirements and a resignation), so he has 16 drivers plus himself and Assistant Superintendent Shaun Roe to drive. He said he does not have enough personnel to do two full shifts in one day and complete plowing in each of the 12 townships.
    Mitchel said an agreement reached a long time ago involved placing a county snowplow truck at the Decatrur, Berne, Geneva, and Preble fire stations to help get fire trucks through deep snow. He added that no plow is needed at the Monroe fire station, since the highway department garage is about four blocks away and the response would be quick.
    Commissioner Ed Coil said the major problem the county has in regard to the highway department is less money. He said that, in recent years, state funds to the highway department fell from more than $2 million per year to $1.7 million and, in 2011, proceeds from the County Economic Development Income Tax are expected to be down about $150,000 from this year.
    On top of that, said Commissioner Doug Bauman, expenses are up, including the cost to build and maintain roads.
    August suggested changing the dispersal of highway employees from first shift to second shift during heavy snow days.
    Elzey asked, rhetorically, if anyone wants a 20-minute delay by a fire department, caused by unplowed roads.
    Bauman said school officials usually call first about snowy roads. August made the point that, if snowfall is really deep or if it is very windy, schools cancel classes, anyway.
    Ford asked how often such plowing is required during heavy snows and it was said perhaps two or three days. Mitchel said there were just two such days last winter.
    The EMS leader also said that, starting in February, he will have only two ambulances serving the county, with one in Decatur and one in Berne. He asked, "What kind of a price do we want to put on life?"
    It was generally agreed that county highway snowplows should be stationed in Decatur and Berne during very heavy snows to help EMS do its job.
    Fruechte suggested getting five people with commercial driver's licenses (CDLs) to drive county plows if the highway department does not have enough manpower. Burry said such people would have to have backgrounds checked and the county would have to certain they are qualified to drive a plow.
    Bauman mentioned that driving a snowplow is demanding work and it's worse at night. He also asked if the fire departments have members who could drive plows, calling this a "partnership" matter.
    Marckel said that, in Decatur, the fire department and EMS do share, with paramedics and firefighters having ridden in snowplows.
    Cook asked if highway department men could work free, but Burry said that, according to state law, county workers must be paid when they work. Elzey added that it would be difficult to put firefighters into the job of being snowplow drivers.
    The Preble fire chief said manpower, not money, is the issue.
    Fruechte asked if the fire departments or EMS have extra money to pay highway department drivers for plowing work. Ford replied, "Money's tight all over."
    Borne suggested having the Decatur, Berne, Monroe, and Geneva street departments provide plows to help the fire departments during heavy snows and said his prime concern at such times is the same as many others: just getting to work.
    Grimm said the Berne Street Department has assisted the fire department there in winter and said three members of the fire department are qualified to drive snowplow trucks.
    Someone asked about legal liability if there is an accident with a county snowplow and Burry said, "Liability follows the vehicle," meaning the county would be liable no matter who is driving a county plow.
    Burry further posed this question: if non-county highway department drivers are ready to help, how many would be available on the day of a big snowstorm?
    Burry went on to say that if there are only three days of really bad snow, the odds are that there would only be one emergency run during that period, so if plow drivers are at the fire stations, they would be able to get rest, then resume their regular plowing the next day.
    Mitchel said his workers usually work 12 hours during bad weather, then get some rest.
    Bauman commented that no one will be satisfied, no matter what is done.
    As the meeting wound down, Bauman said County Surveyor Paul Norr has four employees who have CDLs and who could be trained as snowplow drivers.
    August said the mayors of Decatur and Berne should be consulted on this matter.

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