December 13, 2008 in City

Crews ready to apply lessons

By The Spokesman-Review
Video: Snowplows
Jesse Tinsley photo

Mechanic Steve Fifield works on the brakes of a Spokane County sanding truck Thursday at the county shop in Spokane. County shop personnel have been busy converting dump trucks to snowplows and sanding trucks in preparation for this weekend’s forecast of snowy, frigid weather.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Weather trips up dozens of drivers

Slick roads led to more than 60 crashes Friday afternoon and evening in Spokane County.

Along with 18 crashes in the morning, emergency crews responded to 66 collisions between noon and 8 p.m., according to the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

In North Idaho, the Idaho State Police responded to more than a dozen collisions and slideoffs, and Kootenai County dispatchers said they were busy most of the day.

Chains are required for commercial vehicles on Lookout and Fourth of July passes on Interstate 90 in Idaho, and the ISP urges motorists to stay off the roadways.

Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Dave Reagan said drivers should slow down and increase their following distances.

Of all driving tips, “focusing on your driving tops them all,” Reagan said.

Meghann M. Cuniff

Just 10 months after Spokane residents grew frustrated as snow piled up, city and county officials are facing another big storm that could drop a foot of snow on the city.

Spokane Street Director Mark Serbousek said the city’s de-icer trucks were working the streets Friday as snow began to fall. Plows will head out once snow sticks to arterials. The morning shift of drivers will start at 4 a.m. today, and the night crew will stay on longer, he said.

“We’re ready,” Serbousek said. “We have graders up and running – if we have that kind of storm.”

Last year, about 2 feet of snow fell on parts of Spokane within a week, causing Gov. Chris Gregoire to declare an emergency. City and county offices closed for a day and many schools shut for a week as numerous cars got stuck and stranded on neighborhood streets.

Andy Schenk, Spokane’s street operations engineer, said the city did the best it could given the onslaught of snow. Still, he said, officials are better prepared for a major storm after last winter – the second snowiest on record.

“It was a big one, but we’ve learned from it and I think we’ve made some improvements,” he said.

While officials expect operations to run more smoothly, they urge patience and note they have about the same amount of resources as last year.

Among the changes from the January and February responses, Schenk said, will be regular updates on street-clearing progress via the city’s Web site.

In an attempt to avoid red tape during an emergency, the city already has crafted agreements with private contractors to help in a major storm. Similar pacts weren’t in place last year when the city opted to hire extra help for the first time in memory.“These guys will be able to hit the road a little quicker,” Schenk said.

Officials said they also made an extra effort this fall to train sewer and water department employees to clear snow, a practice that had been lost in recent, tamer winters.

The city’s resources include 43 trucks, 36 of which have plows. Some of the vehicles double as sanders or de-icers, which spray magnesium chloride. Once the severity of the storm is clear, plow crews are mandated to work seven days a week for 12-hour shifts.

Schenk said about 75 street department employees and an additional 25 sewer and water workers run the trucks.

The city will deploy its nine road graders if snowfall reaches 10 or 12 inches, Serbousek said. Last year was the first time in more than a decade that the graders were used in a major snow-clearing operation.

County crews, who clear roads outside city limits and in the city of Spokane Valley, also are preparing for the weekend’s storm. County Engineer Bob Brueggeman said the county has not changed much from last year.

He did say, however, that the county is working to prearrange help from private contractors.

City and county officials focus on arterials first and don’t clear residential streets unless the snowfall measures at least 4 inches and the forecast indicates that snow won’t melt soon.

“We can only do what we have the manpower to do,” Brueggeman said. “In a real extreme winter, be patient, we’ll get to you, but our primary focus is on the arterials to keep the majority of traffic moving.”

Because streets can’t always be clear, Schenk asks that drivers make sure their tires have good traction.

Although a significant storm is expected this weekend, the National Weather Service’s long-term forecast says snowfall this winter will likely be close to average.

“Nature never works in ideals, so we adjust our snow plan to meet the conditions the best we can,” Schenk said.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at or (509) 459-5442.

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