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When the phone rings at 3 a.m., Evanston can rest easy. Glenn Crabtree will answer.
A weather service calls him with the sort of updates – “The storm should be in your area by 5 a.m.” – that help the Evanston Snow Commander on duty (either Mr. Crabtree or his counterpart, Donald Cornelius) decide when and how to set in motion the City’s snow-fighting apparatus.
The weather reports are not a frill. “We’re amateur meteorologists, but we can’t predict the time frame [for a storm],” says Mr. Crabtree.
When snow threatens to interfere with the “drivability” of local streets, Mr. Crabtree, a sanitation supervisor in balmier seasons, can access the personnel and equipment of several City departments.
His job is to mobilize, map, coordinate and track the dozens of vehicles that sweep whitened thoroughfares to keep Evanston from getting stuck.
To learn how it all works, the RoundTable spent an afternoon with Mr. Crabtree in the eye of a recent storm.
The Service Center at 2020 Asbury St. serves as Snow Command Central. While talking with the RoundTable in his office there, Mr. Crabtree fields calls from his crew, mentally noting their locations on a wall map of the City’s nine snow routes.
It is 2 p.m. The snow has been falling since before dawn, and forecasters are predicting more. Plowing is proceeding at slightly less than full force, following a plan that consolidates nine zones into seven larger ones.
Mr. Crabtree has 20 pieces of equipment out, a collection of one-ton plows with salt spreaders, ten-wheel dump trucks with both plows and spreaders or plows only, assorted pickup and garbage trucks with plow blades.
Mr. Crabtree explains why most of the salt spreaders are holding fire in the thick of a storm.
People’s first misconception about plowing, he says, is that everything can be cleaned up at once while it is still snowing. “In the process of a snow, we try to keep the primary streets open,” Mr. Crabtree says. “If we put down salt and it’s snowing, we will be plowing it up.”
The strategy is to salt sparingly at this stage. The snow czar speaks into the phone. “Hit the crosswalks. We have a couple hours before the businesses and trains let out.” He makes an exception of the City core. “Do everything downtown,” he tells a crew there.
“We are not the city of Chicago,” he says. “They throw five tons of salt. But we’ll be [plowing] in our residentials; they won’t.” After it stops snowing and “it’s cleaned up,” he says, “we’ll salt to make it wet.”
There are courses in snow removal, he says, but “a lot of what we do is a ‘feel.’ This is a field where a lot is [based on] experience.” A 32-year City employee, he has earned his chops in 13 or 14 years as snow commander.
Snow fighters need experience to handle driving hazards like “slipping,” he says. “Our vehicles slide.” Residents’ four-wheel drive cars will, too, he cautions. “We have to slide to turn,” he explains. If the brakes are on, the steering locks. To maneuver around parked cars, plow drivers have to tap the brake and then turn the wheel.
En route to his truck, Mr. Crabtree conducts a tour of the Service Center lot and garages. Outdoors, the engines of a front-end loader and a ten-wheeler truck sporting the Lincoln School painted plow are humming.
He shows off the City’s new salt brine tanks, mounted on trucks to dispense a pre-wetting solution for bridges, dangerous turns and sidewalks to prevent the snow from bonding to the surfaces. He points out the salt dome, like a giant igloo with a 6,000-ton mountain of gray salt inside.
The City’s snow melter resides indoors. A behemoth with a diesel engine, a burner, a blower and a swimming-pool-sized catch basin for the melted snow, it is actually so fragile it rarely ventures out of the Service Center yard. Hardier vehicles feed it snow from places in town with no space to pile it.
Given the uncertainty of weather, it is important that responders be flexible, says Mr. Crabtree: “It’s easier to adjust [to a weather forecast] if all the equipment is up and running. But winter is brutal on equipment.” Evanston’s “excellent” Fleet Services division, he says, “takes pride in keeping us rolling.”
At 3:01 p.m. Mr. Crabtree fires up his pickup, “602 Streets.” On the way out of the lot, he hails his own vehicles and drivers – and those from other City departments, such as the Forestry trucks with numbers in the 500s. He is equally familiar with all of Evanston’s streets – and such factoids as the number of private (three) and brick (two) streets in town.
He heads for Ridge Avenue, the most important “primary” and the first street to be plowed. Today he is using “a tandem to open it up faster,” he says, and after making a call, he catches up with the pair of formidable trucks that are running up and down Ridge from Howard to Isabella. He watches their routine, the first travelling down the center of the road and the second following behind and to the right of it, pushing to the curb the windrow the front truck creates.
Next Mr. Crabtree negotiates the roads of south central Evanston. He is checking that smaller streets like Seward and Florence have been “hit” and are plowed, if not clean. He swings past a fire station, satisfied the apron is clear. On Dodge Avenue, to ensure that drivers will be able to gauge which side of the road they are on, he scrapes away the snow that has accumulated in the middle of the street since the plow’s last pass.
He demonstrates a skillful maneuver, moving the articulating plow from one side to the other (hydraulics work the magic) and cutting a clean, sharp edge right next to the curb. Clearing to the curb means catch basins at the curb will be open when the snow melts and that residents will not have to park way out in the street to avoid drifts.
It is nearly 4 p.m., and traffic is interfering with the plowing. With the department in snow mode, crews will be working 12-hour shifts. Overnight they will plow a downtown unencumbered by parked cars; when the snow stops they will begin cleanup operations.
Pulling into the Service Center, the snow commander takes a call from his wife. “Why are you out of work early?” he asks.
Despite a day in the midst of it, he hears her answer and replies with a good-natured, “What do you mean, ‘weather’?”