The Just-ice League: How the snow crew keeps FSU safe

(The snow crew uses plow trucks and Bobcats to keep the roads and sidewalks clear. Photo by Amanda Martin)

It’s Christmas morning. People across the state are holed up in their houses drinking hot cocoa and appreciating the first white Christmas Framingham has seen since 2009.

But the snow crew at Framingham State has already been out in the storm for hours, plowing, shoveling and snowblowing. The wind rips across the exposed hill of the campus and snow mixes with sleet and ice, creating dangerously slick conditions.

It’s no winter wonderland.

The campus may be empty, but the walkways and roads need to be clear in case of an emergency in any of the buildings.

It’s difficult work, but Brad Mellen, a grounds foreman who has worked at FSU for over 30 years, said it’s just a way of life. “It’s bred into us. We’ve been doing this for so many years. I think I speak for a lot of the people when I say, if we’re home and it’s snowing and we haven’t been contacted by the school, we don’t feel right.”

As soon as it looks like a storm is coming, Patricia Whitney, assistant vice president of facilities, and Danny Giard, director of facilities operations, begin planning. They watch the news closely and discuss the best way to respond – whether that includes putting the snow crew on call or asking them to come to campus.

Whitney said they aren’t the decision makers when it comes to declaring a snow day, but they keep in close contact with Dale Hamel, executive vice president, and offer advice on how to proceed.

She said, “Lots of times when [the storms] go through the night, Danny and Brad are here and at, you know, four in the morning people are talking: ‘How is the campus looking? How is cleanup going? Can you keep up? Can we have everything ready for commuters?’”

The University maintains a 15-person snow crew that is comprised mostly of grounds workers, according to Whitney. Building maintainers are tasked with keeping residence hall doors and entryways clear of snow and ice. University trades workers – including carpenters, electricians, mechanics and painters – who would typically be responding to maintenance requests or doing other work, will jump in to help out when necessary.

Giard said there’s always about eight to 10 workers out in the storm with sweepers and snowblowers to keep sidewalks open for students. Typically, six pickup trucks equipped with snowplows will be clearing the roads the whole time.

Whitney added, “Manpower cleans steps,” so crew members also handle the strenuous task of shoveling stairways across campus.

Giard said Joe Bairos, head custodian and 11-year employee of the University, will sometimes gather maintainers who have volunteered for snow cleanup and “take them around” with shovels and snowblowers. “And as you can see, Joe’s no kid,” he added. “So those are worries for us, because our crew is getting a little older.”

Not including labor costs, the University spent $50,000 in 2017 for salt, sand, ice melt, fuel and contracted plowing for the large commuter parking lots, according to Whitney. As of early January, the University has already spent $30,000 and, since last week’s storm required the crew to use a large amount of salt, sand and ice melt, this year’s cost is expected to be at least as high as last year’s.

Whitney and Giard agree that every storm requires a different approach based on its length and particular conditions such as temperature, type of precipitation, rate of accumulation and how heavy and wet the snow is.

The storm last Wednesday – which granted students a much-appreciated snow day – presented a particularly difficult challenge for the snow crew because of the changing precipitation and fluctuating temperatures, said Whitney.

The crew put down salt, sand and ice melt after plowing, but it all washed away when it started to rain. When temperatures dropped, the rain froze, requiring the crew to lay down another layer of salt, ice melt and sand. Then, after that ice melted – due to the salt or warming temperatures – the water started to freeze again and the process had to be repeated. This cycle continued throughout the day as temperatures fluctuated.

“It was a very difficult day,” Whitney said. “Even though most campus employees could go home when the campus closed at 12:30, the Facilities snow crew worked late into the night, then came back early the next morning to have things ready for classes.”

The snow crew is no stranger to long days or late nights in the cold.

Mark Doray, a boiler room worker and plowman who’s been at FSU for 21 years, said, “It’s very difficult to be up and driving for 24 to 36 hours, but sometimes, we do have storms that big.”

He said there have been times when he’s simply put his plow truck in park and laid down on the seat to rest for 10 or 15 minutes before going back to work.

“I recall one time when I was parked on the other side of Larned … [Giard] called me on the radio because he saw the truck, but he didn’t see me. He didn’t know if I had a heart attack. He called to wake me up because he thought that I dropped dead in the truck. I said, ‘No, I just couldn’t keep my eyes open,’” Doray added with a laugh.

During long, overnight storms, supervisors try to give the crew a chance to “rack down” for a few hours of sleep, said Giard. There’s no designated place for them, so crew members will often sleep in the workspaces in the warehouse at the Union Avenue Parking Lot.

He said, “You can’t work 24 hours straight. It’s not safe for everyone to work those kinds of hours with people behind plow trucks, and there’s a lot of people who are just out in the elements for, you know, 16, 17 hours straight … so they have to be able to lay down and recharge the battery.”

However, Giard said there have been storms so severe that resting just wasn’t an option. Once, they tried to let everyone get a little sleep while Mellen stayed awake working a plow to keep everything open. “Within an hour, he called and said, ‘We’ve got to get everybody back. We can’t keep up with it.’”

Mellen said their ability to keep up with a storm depends on the inches per hour and how long they’ve all been working.  “It’s kind of a combination of, ‘When are you getting tired? When do you go eat?’ If we all go eat, the snow is building up. So, it’s a combination of factors.”

According to Whitney, sometimes, the snow crew is called to campus ahead of the storm, but other times they’re just put “on call,” which means they cannot drink alcohol or travel too far from Framingham in case they are needed to respond.

She said the crew was on call for the Super Bowl this year because a storm was forecast, although none materialized.

Snow crew workers have to become accustomed to being on call during all sorts of holidays and family and sporting events. A few years ago, the snow crew was called in to clean the campus on every holiday from Halloween to Presidents’ Day.

“And I think even April 1 that year,” added Mellen.

Mellen lives close by, for which Giard and Whitney are grateful. If it’s off-hours and campus police receive a call saying it’s a little icy outside the McCarthy Center, Mellen is the one who responds.

Whitney said, “It’s 6 o’clock at night and he’s eating dinner with his family, but if he gets the call, he gets up, comes over here and salts it. That’s what they do.”

Not everyone has such an easy commute – Doray lives 40 miles away. “If you get called in in the middle of the night in a raging snowstorm, it’s a challenge, but we always seem to make it here.”

But sometimes, it’s students that pose the greatest challenge.

Mellen said one night, years ago, a student jumped off the roof of the Arthur M. Doyle Technology Center toward the back-access roads because he mistakenly thought it had the same 8-foot drop as the front side of the building. The drop was actually around 30 feet.

“He landed on the railing then into the snowbank. Then, he bounced out onto the road,” Mellen said.

“And so, when I was plowing, I came up the access road and he landed just off to the side of my truck. And this was like 2 in the morning. So, you can imagine – at 2 in the morning – the fun they were having.”

The roof of the center is now pitched.

Back when the dining hall provided trays, students would take them and use them to sled down the hill by Corinne Hall Towers.

Mellen said, “Now they use trash bags.”

Doray said that type of activity can be scary for plow drivers, who may not be able to see students coming down the hill. Students should never assume any plow truck drivers can see them in a storm or that the driver has the ability to stop the truck if they do, he emphasized.

All the supervisors agree they wished students were more conscious of the fact that crews are out in the storm doing cleanup with heavy machinery.

Doray said cars have probably been hit in the past, “but hitting people hasn’t happened so far and we like it that way.”

Whitney hopes students will keep this same advice in mind when driving on campus, especially since many crew members work close to roads in order to clear sidewalks.

Mellen also recommends students keep a shovel and a small bucket of sand in their cars throughout the winter in case they ever get stuck in the school parking lots or elsewhere. If students are ever stuck without a shovel, however, the crew tries to leave some in all the tram shelters at the parking lots.

Snow cleanup is tough work, said Giard, and everyone on the crew does their fair share. It is a joint effort between snow crew, tradespeople, maintainers and other FSU employees.

When Giard first started working at FSU, he was tasked with shoveling. “So, I know how those guys are when they’re out on the snowblowers and the snow shovels and the wind is blowing,” he said. “It’s the people that are out in the elements that I think we need to remember. It’s very, very tough work, and it takes the whole team to get it all done, from deciding how you’re going to fight the storm to the final cleanup and then finishing sweeping before you go home.”

Mellen said, “You can never get it 100 percent. So, when we leave here, we’re really tired and we’ve shoveled and ice melted the best that we can, and we feel as though we’ve left it in pretty decent condition for the employees and the students the next day.

“So, if there happens to be a little patch of ice here and there, we’ll get it when we come in in the morning.”

He joked the snow crew wouldn’t mind “if [students] would all like to volunteer!”