When the weather forecasters predict snow, Mike Erickson fills up the gas tank in his Chevrolet Trailblazer and gets ready to go.
"People need help," said Erickson, a 32-year-old facilities manager at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, where his wife is an emergency room nurse. "I do what I can."
Hospitals and fire stations in the region rely on volunteers such as Erickson, who are willing to go where snowplows have not. They're especially valuable when storms begin winding down and public works crews are concentrating on clearing main arteries.
That's when Erickson, who lives in Abingdon, and dozens of others with four-wheel-drive vehicles hit the road to help medical personnel, emergency workers or dialysis patients get to their destinations.
As 5 to 9 inches of snow fell on Central Maryland yesterday, many of these drivers were called into action.
They are insurance agents and volunteer firefighters. They come from ranch houses in Harford County and rowhouses in the city.
They often wake before dawn to test the road conditions and don't finish their routes until late at night or when the snow and ice start melting.
"It was reassuring to know the hospital and the people associated with it, the staff and volunteers, were willing to help," said Cathy Waldrep, an oncology nurse at St. Joseph, who was driven to work by Erickson from her home in Arbutus yesterday morning.
Waldrep said she had thought she would be able to drive to work.
"When I went out at 5 a.m. and started clearing off my car, I thought, 'No sweat,'" she said. "But by 6 a.m., there were at least 6 inches, and I knew I was going to have trouble. I've had problems in less snow."
Waldrep said she knew her Honda Accord would be fine on the main roads. But, she said, "I didn't feel confident about driving on the secondary roads."
When more than a half-foot of snow fell in December, Erickson drove a doctor stuck in Oregon Ridge to St. Joseph, where a patient needed emergency surgery for internal bleeding.
"I typically make eight or nine round trips like that," he said. "Emergencies can't wait."
Volunteer Rebecca Barney has never minded driving in the snow.
In fact, when a trip needs to be made for snow essentials - milk and bread - Barney is always the one who volunteers to go. Her 2001 black Land Rover does well in rough conditions.
So, when she saw that Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson needed volunteers to drive hospital staff and patients in bad weather, she signed up.
"My schedule is flexible," said Barney, a 28-year-old antiques dealer from Sparks. "And I love the snow."
Barney frequently stops to help other motorists with dead batteries or engine trouble: "I try to help others the same way I'd want to be helped if I were in that position."
Born and raised in Florida, Brian Bays jumps at the chance to drive in the snow.
The 43-year-old insurance agent in Annapolis volunteered to drive for Anne Arundel County during snow emergencies when he bought his Chevrolet Suburban five years ago.
"I love the beauty of it," Bays said. "I love the challenge. And I love helping people."
Yesterday afternoon, Bays came to the aid of John David, a 79-year-old Annapolis resident. He picked up David at a dialysis center on Forest Drive in Annapolis and drove him home.
"That was real nice," David said. "I'm not sure how I would have gotten home. I guess I would have called a cab or something."
Bays said he often transports dialysis patients.
"I never knew there were so many of them," he said. "A lot rely on public transportation or taxis to get to the hospital each day. But when there's bad weather, that all shuts down."
In Anne Arundel County, the Fire Department's Emergency Management Bureau matches people such as Bays who have four-wheel-drive vehicles and those who need transportation. Like many agencies, the department screens the drivers in advance and keeps a list of drivers who can be called on when the weather gets ugly.
"It really is a community effort," said Anne Arundel County Division Chief John M. Scholz. "There are neighbors who shovel the sidewalks of senior citizens on their streets. It's like that, but this is a bigger scale. These are people willing to spend their time and fuel to help out all over the county.
"We always need people with four-wheel-drives."
Those interested in volunteering to drive should call their local hospital or fire station.