When it all goes wrong, it can still go right

How the Alaska DOT deals with challenges in extremis

Daniel Schacher / September 06, 2017
Alaska winter maintenance
Alaska winter maintenance

Many have heard the saying, “A smart person learns from his or her own mistakes while a wise person learns from the mistakes of others.”

Heeding this advice is certainly wise for any winter maintenance professional, but it is equally important to learn from the successes of others. In the face of unprecedented change and adversity, I’m proud to call the winter maintenance team at the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF) a working success.

Alaska has faced a number of recent challenges that forced rapid changes to winter snow and ice operations. The state relies heavily on oil revenues to fund government operations, and the sharp decline in oil prices over the last several years has contributed to a nearly $4 billion shortfall in its operating budget. Funding for snow-and-ice operations for DOT&PF has been reduced by 29% over the last three fiscal years, forcing our leadership to seriously re-evaluate traditional methods of operation and assess what levels of service could realistically be provided. In the midst of the budget free fall, we also were challenged with implementing new technology, responding to an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme winter weather events, and adjusting to changing workforce demographics. Alaska DOT&PF had to make fundamental changes in organizational practices and policies to deliver our mission to Keep Alaska Moving.

Short on money

Alaska DOT&PF is responsible for maintaining nearly 5,600 centerline miles of roadway in a geographic expanse one-fifth of the size of the continental U.S., which means budget reductions to winter operations required drastic measures to be taken. Ultimately five maintenance stations on our highway system were closed and a sixth was designated as winter-season operation only. This reduction puts even greater pressure on the resources and capabilities of the stations that remain. As fate would have it, the winter of 2016-2017—the first season after the station closures—saw the heaviest snowfall in 24 years in interior Alaska. These are the perfect ingredients to whip up a public disaster. With a reduced snow-removal equipment fleet and workforce, winter events that overwhelmed our capabilities were much more frequent than in the past, causing frustration for the traveling public and our employees.

Forced by circumstance and necessity, we carefully examined our operations, overcame the natural apprehension involved in trying new methods, and quickly realized efficiencies. We added tow plow technology to our equipment fleet to reduce the number of trucks needed to complete a plow route. We purchased expandable plows to increase the capability of a single plow truck. We added snow wings to the configuration on many additional plow set-ups. We acquired slide-in spreaders to allow more trucks to apply abrasives or chemicals to the road surface in coordination with their plowing operations. In order to accomplish our mission with this new and different equipment, we were required to change long-standing plow routes, reevaluate road priorities, and adjust crew configurations and schedules.

Implementation of so many changes in such a short time can, in itself, be a recipe for it all to go wrong. And for the first few snow events of winter, that is exactly what seemed to happen. Some roads were missed and some roads were plowed twice—all a result of our crews adjusting to changes in multiple aspects of their operations. But one advantage to enduring Alaska’s long and brutal winters for more than half the year was a whole lot of time and opportunity to practice. We found as winter wore on and we were able to repeat and refine our new processes, the efficiencies and advances in our new snow-and-ice plan became much more evident.

Advancing on advances

Another response to reduced funding for winter maintenance operations was to look to technological advances to increase efficiency and effectiveness in our processes. A customized Maintenance Decision Support System (MDSS) has been in development for the past three winters. As the project has matured, we have remarkably improved road weather forecasting accuracy. Over time our maintenance crews gained confidence in the forecasts and treatment recommendations, which increased deployment of a proactive response to winter events, a practice that was even noticeable by many in the traveling public.

The benefits of a customized MDSS system are clearly seen in hindsight, but it was a long road getting there. There were times during its development when stakeholders wondered if the system would ever prove of value. Hardware and software problems, lack of consistent connectivity, loss of critical project personnel and competition with the demands of users’ daily jobs were overwhelming at times. There were many days and even weeks when all went wrong. The team made decisions and charted paths forward that it initially believed were good ideas, but which turned into complete failures. These roadblocks and wrong turns forced the project team to turn the plan in an entirely new direction in order to save the project and deliver a valuable and viable product. The goal remained constant, but the workflow and processes had to change in order to be successful.

Today, the DOT&PF has an accurate, reliable MDSS system to help guide its winter maintenance activities. As we build more infrastructure into our data-collection network, the reliability will only increase statewide.

Maintenance station closures complicated operations during the winter of 2016-2017, which saw the heaviest snowfall in 24 years in the Alaska interior; operations were further complicated by a truncated workforce.

Maintenance station closures complicated operations during the winter of 2016-2017, which saw the heaviest snowfall in 24 years in the Alaska interior; operations were further complicated by a truncated workforce.

A fresh crop

The DOT&PF has been challenged in recent years with the loss of skilled, long-term employees, a problem familiar to many other public works agencies. Some of the employees we lost had been performing the same tasks on the same roads for over 30 years, having worked on them their entire career. When they left, the department lost irreplaceable institutional memory. How could we possibly replace such vast experience with a new employee?

Admittedly, recruiting and retaining skilled employees is a difficult task for the department, especially with the change in the state of Alaska’s retirement system from a defined-benefit plan to a 401(k)-type plan. No longer do our employees need to vest and accumulate years of service to qualify for a retirement pay-out. New employees can simply move their retirement account with them as they transfer to a different job. At a time when working smarter and more efficiently than ever before is not a choice but a necessity, there is now a greater probability that inexperienced personnel are performing multiple tasks they have never done before with increasingly fewer experienced co-workers and mentors to guide and advise them.

But a fresh workforce does have a silver lining. While there have been some instances when lack of institutional experience and knowledge has temporarily slowed processes, most of the old methods have been modified or eliminated with the implementation of more efficient work plans and practices. In many cases, the longer-term employees have a more difficult time adapting to new processes than our relatively newer people. With no engrained thinking and habits, newer employees can have an advantage in quickly picking up new work plans and offering constructive ideas for improvement. Despite the fact that losing experienced crew members presents a significant challenge, it has also created an opportunity for growth during a time when changes have been forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control.

A renewed spirit

Many “old timers” fondly remember when the winter season was considered a slower time. We experienced regular snow events followed by periods of high pressure and no snow. We would plow roads, clean up after the event and prepare for the next snowfall. We caught up on documenting our summer construction projects and built the next season’s work plan. Of late we have been faced with strange, new and now more frequent extreme events that require all the resources the department can muster. From a freezing rain “Icepocalypse” in the interior of Alaska to an avalanche dubbed the “Damalanche” in Keystone Canyon to the aufeis and flooding of the northern section of the Dalton Highway, severe and unprecedented events are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

These events stretch our dwindling budgets and resources to the breaking point. However, we now respond to such extreme conditions with a renewed spirit of cooperation and collaboration as a department statewide. The DOT&PF traditionally responded to winter events with a disjointed force—each station took care of its own stretch of highway and rarely shared information or resources with anyone else. That kind of thinking isn’t an option anymore. Removed are the silos and old entrenched business model of “not my area, not my problem.” Instead we identify the challenge and attack it as a team, drawing on our combined resources as needed to provide the best possible serviceability on our roads.

We don’t own the secret

Change is here to stay. No winter maintenance agency can stand pat for long without inviting something, or even everything, to go wrong. As a team and as individuals, the operations section of the DOT&PF has gone through tremendous changes, and from outside appearances there were times when everything did go wrong. But by identifying—not hiding from—the biggest challenges we face and proactively responding to these challenges, we have facilitated tremendous growth in our department and have given our employees a stake in our future path. Through an honest and complete examination of our routine processes, we have been successful in finding efficiencies. By encouraging a culture of innovation and embracing change, we are better-equipped to handle the next unknown challenge when all goes wrong.

About the Author

Schacher is maintenance superintendent at Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

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