Braving the roads before the bell

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the buzzer sounds on his clock radio at 3:30 Tuesday morning, Charley Taibi doesn't even think about five minutes' more sleep.

There's no time.

His feet hit the floor and the first thing he does is look out the window, across the pond toward his neighbor's home in the Todd Lakes development.

He's a bit nervous.

He doesn't like what he sees and immediately dials 410-838-6600 - the Harford County Sheriff's Office.

He is not reporting a suspicious character in the neighborhood.

Taibi is one of four supervisors with the Harford County public schools' transportation department, and it's his day to get up early and start the process of gathering information that will determine whether schools are delayed or closed by inclement weather.

Without even a cup of coffee to chase away any traces of sleep, Taibi flips on the weather channel. In addition to his call to the Sheriff's Department for a reading on road conditions, he'll check in with the state police.

He might make calls to the state and county roads commissions, but more often than not, at this hour there is no one around to answer the phones.

It's 3:45 a.m. and Taibi's next call is to his boss.

Norm Seidel, the school system's director of transportation, answers on the first ring. It's always the same: "Whatcha got?"

If Seidel doesn't like what he hears, calls go out to the two other supervisors - Cathy Beers and Gary Ritz. It's time for all four to hit the road.

"You wash your face and brush your teeth and you're out the door," said Ritz. "No breakfast. No coffee."

They all drive the same type of vehicle: a white, 1996, front-wheel-drive, four-door Chevrolet Lumina.

"We call them pintos, because the paint is peeling off every one of them, leaving dark blotches," Ritz said, laughing.

Everybody's on the road by 4:15 a.m. Each is traveling the highways and back roads of a different section of the county.

"We need to make a decision by 5," Seidel said.

It's a lonely ride. "There's no sign of life," said Taibi. "All the other houses are dark. Even the dairy farms are still dark. I'll see a few deer cross the road, but that's about it."

During a discussion of their work in the conference room of the school system's annex building in Hickory, the three male members of the staff laughed and acknowledged that Beers - the newest member - has the toughest route.

"Yeah, she has to go up that hill on Walters Mill Road," Ritz said. "If she makes it up the hill, there's a chance school will be open. If she starts sliding back down, she will probably end up in Deer Creek."

'Stop and go'

It's not a leisurely ride. "It's stop and go. Stop and go," Ritz said.

"There are times when you feel like you're going to throw up," one of the other drivers said.

"When you hear the chatter of the antilock brakes, you know you have poor road conditions," Ritz said. A blue light on the dash warns of low traction.

Seidel interjected: "You stop on the hills and see if you can start up again without sliding."

"The last thing we want is for a child slipping and sliding on the side of the road when a bus is pulling up," added Taibi. "And we have to think about the walkers. A lot of kids walk to school."

"We all know our routes," he said. "We know where the road is likely to ice up first and where the snowdrifts will likely cover the road.

"I always apply my brakes right in front of the schools. This is where the buses will be braking as they turn into the schools."

Seidel would like his staff to have four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles, but he sees some advantage to Luminas. "With these front-wheel-drive cars, we get better traction than the buses," he said. "We know if we have a traction problem, the buses are going to have a problem."

Seidel will arrive at the Hickory office about 4:45 a.m. By this time he has alerted Trish Cannaday, a school bus driving instructor, to put all contract drivers on standby status until a decision is made on going or not going.

The buses carry about 35,000 students and travel the equivalent of nearly six trips to California and back a day.

Seidel also will have notified Jeffrey C. Ayers, director of facilities management, who will be responsible for clearing the snow from 66 acres of school parking lots and 23 miles of school lanes.

At the office, Seidel will tap into AccuWeather, a service that costs $1,800 a year. He can get radar readings, with updates every 10 minutes, tracking a weather system moving through the region.

County counterparts

He will frequently touch base with his counterparts in Howard, Frederick and Carroll counties, to get their input on a snowstorm moving from their area toward Harford County.

Seidel will call the county police again. He will frequently be put on hold, but he can overhear the conversations as the dispatcher talks to deputies about road conditions in their districts.

At his office, Seidel sifts the vast amount of information from the state and county police, the state and county road commissions, the Weather Channel and AccuWeather, along with radio dispatches from the supervisors still on the road.

It's crunch time.

No later than 5:05 a.m. he calls Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas with his recommendation.

Haas said she relies heavily on Seidel's report and the advice of the people on the road.

But she added: "I will argue with him [Seidel] about certain things. I may ask him for another weather update. I need to be absolutely certain."

She said the "livelier debate comes on mornings of iffy conditions," such as concern over black ice, a condition when wet roads freeze and become very dangerous.

"We always do what is safest for the kids," Haas said.

There is no disagreement on this point. "First and foremost," Seidel said, "is the safety of the kids. "If it's a 50/50 situation, we close. We will [err] on the side of safety. We can always make up a school day, but we can't make it up if a child is hurt."

Seidel added: "There are times when we may look bad. A storm may move in faster than anticipated or the runoff from snow doesn't freeze as we predicted."

There are also times, he said, when road conditions vary greatly from one section of the county to another. "Our decision is based on the worst section of the county. That's the reason why some people in the southern part of the county, which we call the Florida zone, wonder what's going on when school is called when their roads are clear."

Waiting for daylight

A two-hour delay is often called to avoid students being picked up on hazardous roads in the dark. "Buying time to daylight is critical," Seidel said. "Motorists can see the kids better, and the kids have better visibility."

Temperatures may rise slightly and the other traffic on the roads will help improve driving conditions.

While on the road, the supervisors are also checking to make certain that there is adequate space for a school bus to pass another vehicle.

Despite the early start of their workday, Beers said, "There is always somebody at the office until the last child is delivered back home. We leave when the last bus checks in."

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