Many Newtonians may be dreaming of a white Christmas. Newton’s Director of Streets Bernie McDonald isn’t one of them.
He certainly won’t be singing the song of that name made famous by Bing Crosby. But McDonald, responsible for clearing snow from 375 miles of roads and 80 miles of sidewalks, is ready for whatever nature sends his way.
And he may find that this winter could be challenging.
AccuWeather, the commercial forecasting service, is predicting that the Boston area could see between 38 and 44 inches of snow this winter, typical for the region but considerably more than last year’s unusually light 12.4 inches.
The company expects that the window for nor’easters will stretch from late January through February for the region, with “hefty snowfall amounts.” The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a “snowy but mild winter” in the Northeast.
The forecasts don’t faze the confident, gloated McDonald, who joined the Department of Public Works last January after 29 years in Waltham, where he served as superintendent of highways.
“I’m confident that our team is prepared to handle whatever comes our way this winter,” McDonald said.
Everything is already in place for the first snow. There are mountains of salt—8,300 tons were used last year—more than 90 pieces of equipment, and a crew of 45 men ready to plow the roads and sidewalks, not to mention parking lots at 21 schools and more than 40 municipal buildings and other city facilities.
Dealing with the snow is a costly and labor-intensive endeavor that takes a sizeable bite out of the city’s budget ($3.4 million to be exact).
In addition to expensive equipment—a new truck that has the capability to salt and apply liquid simultaneously with additional accessories was just purchased for $400,000—work crews and staff, McDonald has some 140 outside contractors who can earn between $140 and $28 an hour on call.
Battling the snow is not a job for the weak. During heavy storms, crews work around the clock salting and plowing the roads. “The minute it snows we’re there,” McDonald says. And they could be there for a while.
The new director of streets recalls that in the winter of 2015 when some 110 inches of snow blanketed the Newton and Waltham areas, he worked 130 hours (amounting to five days) straight before he could see his family.
“That’s a long, long time not going home,” he said. “But you get through it and get ready to fight the next storm.” Crews are not permitted to work more than 16 hours at a time before getting a four-hour break. Fatigue is one of the major challenges drivers face, McDonald said.
The Streets Division, headed by McDonald who is supported by Superintendent Mike MacKay, and assistant superintendents Tony Dethomasis, Rich Cincotta, Norman Sementelli and Dennis Panza, don’t wait for the snow to fall before going into action.
Streets are pretreated way ahead of time and then once the city knows there will be snow, McDonald explains, crews in salt trucks will start hitting the roads. The salt prevents the snow from bonding and sticking to the ground. Sand is no longer used.
He said that it is important for the public to do their part during snowstorms, stressing the importance of residents clearing the sidewalks in front of their property and not pushing snow out of their driveways into the street, adding to the workload of the crews.
“People living in New England know that snow can be tough to fight so helping our crews out and thank you once in a while would be a great thing to do,” he said.
Hiring enough full-time workers to meet the city’s needs has become increasingly challenging, according to McDonald. There have been five to six vacancies for most of the year, despite starting annual salaries of $55,000.
“There’s not a lot of people that want to plow snow anymore. You know, 20 years ago you’d have people begging to come to work. Not now. It’s almost impossible to fill every spot that we have vacant,” he said.
Diversifying his workforce has been particularly challenging. Except for office workers, all the crews are male. McDonald said he had only one female applicant apply for one of the vacancies. He’s offered her the job as a truck driver but has not heard back yet.