Extraordinary response

Sept. 5, 2018

Implementing and sustaining a winter maintenance improvement plan in Washington, D.C., after record snow event

Winter maintenance activities bring unique challenges to agencies charged with maintaining safety and mobility of roadways and surfaces.

While it is accepted practice within winter operations to base needed resources and modes of operation upon historical averages of what has been required during past seasons, there are times when Mother Nature brings on everything but average. During these times, that which is already “unique” becomes extraordinary.

Such was the turn of events in Washington, D.C., in January 2016 when what has since been known as “Snowzilla,” a pernicious three-day storm, dumped a record snowfall of 19 to 24 in. of the white shroud across the city, leaving its mark on the nation’s capital. According to the Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post, the average snowfall in D.C. is just over 15 in. per season with the majority of events, nearly 86%, being less than 5 in., respectively. With the January 2016 storm, Mother Nature definitely gave the capital city a strong dose of “extraordinary,” pushing available resources to new limits.

Making a problem worse

While many in the snow and ice community are accustomed to large amounts of snowfall and might scoff at a mere 24 in. in three days’ time, to truly understand the impact facing the District under such circumstances, one must consider the other major factors unique to the city. Washington, D.C., is the home of the federal government, employing hundreds of thousands of workers, a densely populated region (roughly 11,000 people per square mile) with a reported additional 500,000 daily commuters who work in the District. For the 700,000 individuals who live within the city limits and the half-million daily commuters, traffic congestion is problematic under the best of conditions. Throwing in upwards to 2 ft of snow over a short period of time quickly brings things to a halt and creates major issues for snow removal and disposal, a common issue among those who are located in urban environments. Once the snow is plowed, it must be removed and stored—a point often lost on the general public; the snow does not just magically “disappear.” Identifying storage locations in a densely populated region brings its own challenges.

To further complicate matters of how to best deal with such an extraordinary event, that year also marked the advent of new District leadership within the Department of Public Works (DPW). The new director, saddled with an aged fleet, quickly realized the necessity of rallying forces, both internal and external, to accomplish goals for acceptable levels of service. Despite the challenges, the District’s snow team returned all roads (primary, secondary and residential) to a minimum of 85% clearance within 48 hours of the storm’s conclusion, successfully clearing 1,100 miles of roadway and restoring the District to normal day-to-day activities.

D.C.’s winter maintenance plan focused on equipment-readiness improvements.

Building on success

Recognizing the extent of the challenges posed by a major snow event and the impact of snow- and ice-removal services upon the community, Chris Shorter, the new DPW director, immediately began addressing the operational and support functions critical to the future success of the District’s winter maintenance plan. In the months to follow, an internal After Action Review, conducted by snow team members, identified both strengths and weaknesses within the program. Getting all stakeholders involved in identifying areas of need, as well as accepting ownership to address the needs, allowed the DC Snow Team to achieve its desired goals and objectives.

While various areas of potential need were noted in the After Action Review, the key items identified were coordination, reporting and equipment readiness. Coordination was addressed through the collective updating of the District’s snow and ice plan. The goal was to detail roles, responsibilities and desired outcomes internally and externally, thus minimizing dependence on personal knowledge. The overall objective was to mirror the more structured approach found in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to improve communication flow. Another goal was to address the environmental concerns arising from identifying and managing suitable snow storage and disposal sites.

Reporting of route completion and quality control also were identified as needed components for timely and effective snow removal. Planning and management layers were added to the organization structure along with improved automated vehicle locating (AVL) and enhanced reporting. A “dashboard” was created to capture service requests, enhanced AVL information, equipment dispatching, route completion and quality assurance reporting of route conditions. This dashboard was made available to all snow team members, assuring timely dissemination of critical information. Process and procedures within the District’s Snow Command Center were reviewed and streamlined to optimize critical support functions.

Equipment readiness was reviewed and consideration given to the percent of availability in lieu of the overall aging fleet (nearly 40% exceeded service life). In an effort to support fleet readiness and ensure the needed availability of equipment for winter storms, additional units were added through a leasing program (termed “surge equipment”). Considered a short-term solution, leased units provide the needed support to allow up to 130% availability of needed vehicles, thus assuring the ability to meet established levels of service.

Testing it out

Moving into and through the 2016-2017 winter season made field-testing possible along with refining the snow plan’s upgraded components and processes. Despite a lighter than normal snowfall that season, areas for ongoing improvement were identified and the agency entered the 2017-2018 season seeking continued process improvement. The DC Snow Team continues to conduct annual summits to maintain the momentum towards process improvement through continued evaluation and adjustments.

Areas of focus identified in moving forward included:

  • Debriefing and assessing the previous year’s operation and performance;
  • Bringing all stakeholders together to thoroughly identify issues and concerns;
  • Introducing industry experts and identifying best practices as a means to developing plan improvements; and
  • Improving knowledge and skill sets associated with best practices to further advance the winter operations plan.

Through deliberate engagement, the director empowered the team to begin looking at strategies to improve equipment reliability; enhance communication and accountability; clearly delineate areas of responsibility in operations, planning, logistics, finance and administration; strengthen the citywide support network of departments coming together to provide the overall organization responsible for snow operations during winter months; and continue to empower team members to take ownership of their respective areas through active, solicited engagement, training and team-building exercises.

A June 2017 After Action Report and Improvement Plan noted key areas of improvement focusing on equipment readiness, maintenance and upgrades, and also included consideration for associated training. The District of Columbia Snow and Ice Removal Plan and Reference Documents became the living, dynamic blueprint to shape the program as it moves forward.

Figure 1. Snow performance measures for D.C. Public Works.

Open dialogue

June 2017 also included a two-day Winter Storm After Action Review Workshop geared towards providing participants the opportunity review and comment on the current plan, to identify and discuss the lessons learned from the 2016–2017 winter storm season, and to learn about national best practices that would be incorporated in the D.C. Snow Team’s operations. Best practices were presented by industry experts and identified for implementation by the team, including new plan development for non-motorized trails and an enhanced anti-icing program, increased liquids use for pre-treating and pre-wetting, equipment calibration for increased accuracy and control of material applications, and additional training and workforce development to facilitate the change management necessary to support alternative treatments and methods to an otherwise traditional approach.

The newly refined snow and ice plan offered a comprehensive overview of program components, roles, responsibilities, resources, communications flow and desired levels of service. The graphic illustration of agency performance measures, known as the “Penguin Chart” (Figure 1), illustrated expectations defined by time to complete. The major challenge facing the team then became the ability to implement and execute.

Included among the industry experts participating in the June 2017 workshop were the consultants of DW Clonch LLC. They worked with the snow team leadership to identify best practices that offered the greatest benefit to the team’s winter maintenance plan, and to identify and initiate measures required for successful plan implementation and execution. Through detailed snow-and-ice program review, equipment and facilities evaluation, meetings and discussions with various team members, and existing training program review, processes and training elements were identified to offer the support needed for successful plan implementation and execution.

Through team collaboration, the consultants proposed options to aid in taking operational components of the plan from paper to practice. These operations included elevating awareness and understanding with various stakeholders, e.g., leadership, workforce, and residents; optimizing existing resources with upgrades and modifications (where needed); and strategic planning to address both short and long-term goals and objectives. Specific areas of focus included processes and procedures to support optimizing liquids use, identification and implementation of equipment modifications and upgrades, calibration of equipment to support accuracy and quality control, and the development and delivery of training across various levels of the team to facilitate the required change required for program buy-in and support.

Through a collective approach of working with the snow team, the consultants offered guidance to help the team match solutions to its needs.

Additionally, coordinated efforts resulted in augmenting the District’s winter training program to provide employees with the knowledge and skill sets required to understand and employ the new processes, procedures and tools that were being introduced into their winter maintenance daily activities. Building an understanding of and sharing the value of the new tools, treatments and techniques was critical to fostering user buy-in and successful outcomes.

Training approaches included classroom, face-to-face, and hands-on demonstrations. In all, more than 330 staff members participated in several individual training events that, from course evaluation data and feedback, were well received and highly rated. The level of interest, engagement and enthusiasm among the participants were strong indicators of movement in a forward direction.

The D.C. Snow Team returned all roads to a minimum 85% clearance within 48 hours of a three-day January 2016 snowstorm.

Into practice

While the 2017-2018 winter season produced minimal relative snowfall in the nation’s capital, frost, black ice and freezing rain events required resources and snow-fighting efforts just the same. The team deployed resources for numerous events throughout the season, actively increasing liquid applications and decreasing overall dry salt applications, resulting in significant savings to the operations budget without sacrificing levels of service. By implementing methods to increase liquid salt brine production and application, the team grew the liquids program significantly from approximately 200,000 gal of use to 500,000 gal.

Due to the complexity of the winter maintenance operations program and the numerous indirect costs as well as direct expenses, calculating specific detailed cost data is frequently problematic. However, reverting, again, to averages and year-to-year comparisons of resource and material requirements, observations and estimates can be formulated offering a fair representation.

The District’s increased liquids use combined with equipment calibration and employee training provided, in part, the ability to recognize an estimated $1.5 million program savings from reduced salt use in the winter operations budget over that of the previous year. Although the numbers are estimated, they are clearly indicative of the potential that can be realized through the active pursuit and employment of efficiencies and effectiveness.

While there are varied opinions about how long it takes to cultivate change within an organization, it seems everyone can agree that it is not expected to take place overnight. Successfully taking a written plan from paper to practice requires commitment and persistence to stay the course. In moving forward, the department plans to continue engaging all stakeholders, refining its plan, building its snow team, further harnessing technology, increasing liquids, controlling output, optimizing resources, continuing training and workforce development, and providing a level of service befitting the nation’s capital.

About The Author: Clonch is owner of DW Clonch LLC.

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