xml:space="preserve">

Brian Boone has spent his past nine birthdays on a snow plow or at work, monitoring for snow.

Boone, a motor equipment operator for Howard County's highways bureau, was born on Valentine's Day, smack in the middle of one of the area's most snow-prone months.

Advertisement

"If my math is correct," he estimates, "I was here about 95 percent of February" last winter, including Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015, which brought Boone the gift of 2.6 inches of snow, according to historical weather data.

"Here" is the bureau's Cooksville maintenance shop on Old Frederick Road, a pale green building that serves as headquarters for snow removal operations in Howard County's western zone. "I've been here so long I went out and bought a single bed," Boone adds, perfectly serious.

He and his co-workers are among the roughly 130 employees who hop onto plows, dump trucks, graters and snow blowers to clear the roads of snow and ice each winter. With snow season looming, they're once again gearing up for long work days ahead.

They're also just a piece, albeit the most visible one, of the county's response to winter storms, which sees contributions from the purchasing office all the way up to the county executive. In a major storm, "it's absolutely an all-hands-on-deck, countywide, team effort," says Ryan Miller, Howard County's emergency management director.

On days when it snows, or threatens to snow, Miller is up at the break of dawn, advising Chief Administrative Officer Lonnie Robbins as Robbins decides whether to delay or shut down government offices for the day.

Last winter season, he was up early 19 times for snowfall – or snow events, in government lingo – of varying intensity.

Most of the time, the snow's light enough that the entire cleanup can be handled by Bureau of Highways staff. But once snowfall bypasses a certain mark, in the 6- to 10-inch range, Miller and others report to the Emergency Operations Center, a staging area for officials to monitor the weather and coordinate a response.

Of the 19 snow events last season, the operations center, or EOC, was open about a half dozen times just to keep an eye on the morning and evening commutes, Miller said. Three times, he put a call in for other representatives, from public works, the police department, fire and rescue, communications. Sometimes, depending on the severity of the storm, the call is broadened to include licensing and permits employees who can assess property damage; utilities company representatives to advise on downed lines and power outages; and shelter managers.

When everyone's in the same room, "problems get corrected faster," Miller said.

In the midst of all these specialists, Miller, who has worked as emergency management director for three years and in Howard County for 19, likens his role to that of an orchestra conductor.

"I don't need to know how to play the tuba, but I need to make sure it's in sync with the percussionist," he said. "My job is to make sure snow removal operations are in sync with other county priorities."

'Little Alaska'

Howard County is responsible for clearing some 1,115 miles of roadway in the event of a snowstorm. The western division of the highways bureau is responsible for about 300 of those miles, from the Carroll County line in Mt. Airy, to Turf Valley, to Brighton Dam.

The west sees some of the county's heaviest snowfall; Boone and his colleagues have taken to calling it "Little Alaska."

Advertisement

"We may get snow out here when the east just has rain," said Dave Lawson, an operations supervisor who has worked at the shop for 29 years.

Couple that with open farm fields and above-ground power lines, and the Cooksville crew has a lot on its hands each time it snows. In the more densely populated east county, crews face more parked cars and cul-de-sacs.

As soon as the flakes start to fall, Boone and the others head onto the roads to spread salt; once it's done snowing, they head back out again to plow and re-salt.

"When it's drifting, that's when it's real bad," says west zone superintendent Sonny Harrison. "The loaders" – 12-foot-tall machines that scoop up snow – "will be on the road from daylight to dark."

The dedication of the snow crews keeps roads clear, Harrison says. "I've got a very dedicated group. They've given up almost all the winter holidays."

It's not unusual for snow plow drivers to sleep at the shop, which is equipped with cots, showers and a kitchen. One particularly snowy winter, Boone – who keeps his single bed folded up against a wall when it's not in use – worked 12 days in a row.

"You've got to like the job to be good at it," says Dennis Pickett, an operations supervisor with 34 years at the Cooksville center.

"It's almost an adrenaline rush for me," says Boone. "You never know what you're going to see when you come around that next turn."

Drivers face obstacles such as downed and low-lying trees, toppled bamboo and fallen power lines. Some have skidded off the road and into the snowdrifts of a farm field.

But the top challenges, they agreed, come from cars parked along the street, trash cans left by the curb and drivers too stubborn to stay indoors when it's snowing.

"If the public's having trouble, we're having that much more trouble," Boone said.

"Our main request is for the citizens of Howard County to be patient with us, give us time," said Harrison.

Winter is coming

Though Howard hasn't seen a true blizzard since February 2010, the repeated snowfalls of the past two winters have taken their toll on the county's resources.

Officials had to dip into the general fund's contingency reserves last fiscal year to cover an additional nearly $2 million in snow removal costs. Another $900,000 was transferred from the police department.

Crews also faced a salt shortage as the season wore on. At one point, "we were looking at our last six loads out of here before it was gone," said Harrison.

"Having 19 little storms is just as bad as having a few really big storms from the salt standpoint," Miller said.

"Part of the problem was we had orders in and were trying to get it, but the port down in Baltimore didn't have any salt," said Tom Meunier, chief of the highways bureau. "I think it was heading up to Boston."

As winter approaches once again, Howard County has 22,000 tons of salt on hand, stored in 11 facilities at seven different locations. County Executive Allan Kittleman budgeted $1 million to pay for a new salt storage dome in fiscal year 2016. According to Meunier, the new dome would increase salt storage capacity by about 50 percent.

"I think we're pretty well prepared, as far as materials and equipment," he said.

Though Miller pays close attention to forecasts, he doesn't like to offer his own. His training has taught him to prepare for the worst.

Advertisement

"If a prediction says it's going to be a mild winter, all that could potentially do is lessen the level of preparedness," he said. "We don't like to be caught off guard because of what somebody thought was going to happen this winter."

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement