By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY February 11, 2003 There arent many certainties in the snowplow business.
But the State of New York Department of Transportation workers know when they have to work. If its snowing, and their shift is on, theyre out on the roads.
Unlike most of the town highway departments in the area, the state works on 12-hours shifts.
During the wintertime, the Sullivan County departments 51 employees are split up into two categories.
On a nice day, one half works from 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the other half from 1:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., a traditional eight-hour day, from Monday through Friday.
But when the snow starts to fly, the guys take over their 12-hour duties. And those shifts are in place whether its Wednesday or Sunday.
The way we operate, our guys always know when theyre working, said Rich Decker, a foreman for the Sullivan County branch of NYSDOT. They know if something happens on their shift, theyre responsible for that time.
And like any highway worker in the county, the guys in the DOT put in a lot of hours for very little pay and little recognition.
In Sullivan County, we are probably one of the lowest, if not the lowest, paid highway departments, explained Dean Smith, assistant resident engineer. But when theres a storm, everyone pitches in.
That includes the men and women who work out of centers in Monticello, Kenoza Lake and Liberty and a few workers who stock up at a state outpost in Wurtsboro. Altogether there are 48 highway and maintenance employees, some who drive the trucks in the worst storms, some who man the radio and others who stay behind to fix up the plows.
In the wintertime, the number increases to 61, because a bridge crew in Liberty that generally answers to the state highway department in Binghamton joins the Sullivan County ranks.
According to Smith, the workers maintain 540 lane miles of highway during the summer, cleaning up snow and ice on slightly more than 500 during the winter months (a short distance in the Town of Lumberland and a fair portion of Route 97 are contracted out to the countys department of public works).
But with the relatively small staff and the huge expanse of roadways, theres little time or manpower to spare.
On Christmas Day, when upwards of two feet of snow hit the Catskills, Smith said the men werent able to stop for a chance to sleep or eat until their 12-hour shifts were up. And if you want a day off, the boss has to check the weather schedule before granting permission.
During storms, we dont have extra people, Smith said. But Ive got to give our employees a lot of credit they are dedicated.
And the workers share the load even helping one another out from across the county.
There are circumstances where, if something breaks down, well get something from another site, but thats rare, said Paul Brockner, foreman at the Kenoza Lake substation.
Equipment is shared, especially in the summer. The state has spent much of its maintenance money in the past few years trying to repair the drainage systems in the county, especially focusing on culverts on the western side, Smith explained.
A lot of these roads are old, he noted.
The state also paves its roads and mows along Route 17. Major projects have to pass muster with the head office, however.
Some people think we have an endless supply of money, but were allotted a certain amount each year for maintenance work, Smith explained.
That limit includes salaries. The state requires workers have a clean commercial drivers license with airbrake endorsements, said Craig Buchman, foreman in Monticello.
Within a week on the job, they need to show they can go out and drive the truck, he continued. We have people who come in in October, and the first snowstorm theyre out on the job.
We require more than any other place, but pay the least, added Decker.
But this isnt to say that the job isnt fulfilling. Many of the workers maintain second jobs, and they take pride in the work that they do for the state.
The 24-hour coverage on the roads means the states byways are safer for travelers, and the workers hope residents notice the difference.
Im sure the public realizes it because they get up in the morning and the state roads are clean, Brockner said.
A lot of these guys belong to volunteer fire departments and ambulance corps throughout the county, Smith said. Its a dedication thing.
All this despite the dangers of plowing snow in Sullivan County.
Its pretty scary for a snowplow driver with snowbanks on each side kids are attracted to them, Brockner said. You have to be on your toes on a day off from school.
Riding on Route 17 can be even more challenging, said Buchman.
Out on 17 you have tractor-trailers out there on your tail, people trying to do 65 in 6 to 8 inches of snow, he said. I know our drivers wish people would stay behind them rather than passing them on 17.
There are times we have three trucks out together and people try to veer around them, he added.
Snowmobiles and ATVs should stay off the roadway as well, the foremen agreed.