Winter weather means long hours of the County Highway Department

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When many people see snow, thoughts turn to sledding and snowmen and outdoor activities.

  When the members of the Switzerland County Highway Department sees snow, it means long hours with little sleep, clearing roads to keep everyone safe as they travel.

  Darrell Keith, Superintendent of the Switzerland County Highway Department, said that his crew put in extensive hours over the past week as heavy winter weather moved through the area.

  “It’s been a busy week,” Keith said. “We were out a week ago Sunday, and then we were out again Wednesday night into Thursday morning; and then we were out Saturday night into early Sunday morning. Then we started at 4 a.m. Monday morning.”

  Keith said that the highway department typically has 9-10 trucks out on county roads, working to cover and clear 360 miles of roads here in Switzerland County.

  “Wednesday night into Thursday morning we were out for 12 hours,” Keith said of last week’s snowfall. “That was after we worked a full day on Wednesday. We left at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, came back in at 6 p.m., and we left at 6 a.m. on Thursday morning.”

  Working regular shifts, but always needing to be ready when hazardous weather comes, means that highway workers are on call much like volunteer firefighters or emergency workers.

  “I try and anticipate bad weather coming,” Keith said. “I watch a lot of weather and watch a lot of radar and try and anticipate what’s going on, but you know how Mother Nature can be — she’s very unpredictable.”

  Keith said that he was watching the weather forecasts last Wednesday, and he said he began to anticipate that the crews were going to have to go back out.

  “I was sitting at home and I’m watching it snow and snow,” he said. “My wife said, ‘Are you going to go lay down?’; and I said, ‘nope’. I ended up going out and driving some roads. I don’t know what was different, but that snow Wednesday evening and the one on Saturday evening, got slick quicker than any I can remember in a long time. It was like as soon as it started snowing, the roads were terrible.”

  Keith said that typically the same crews drive the same routes when hazardous weather hits, but noted that everyone also works as a team, so if someone get behind or has an issue, all of the others jump in and help with the situation.

  “They pretty much have their own routes,” Keith said. “They know where to go and what to do on particular roads. It seems to work out well.”

  Keith said that in some instances, crews identify more heavily traveled roads when starting to clear different areas of the county; but in other cases experience tells them where to go first.

  “We’ve got one route that starts in Center Square and takes all of the side roads as they go, while another one within that crew would concentrate on Fairview Road or Bennington Pike,” Keith said. “We have some doing the side roads, and some doing the main roads.”

  All of the highway trucks are parked at the County Highway Garage in East Enterprise, so when winter weather strikes, county highway workers first have to make their way to the highway garage to get to their trucks and plows.

  The work can also be dangerous, as the crews are out plowing for long hours with little sleep.

  “Nobody realizes that if you’ve got 10 tons of cinders and you’ve got a snow blade and you’re on a slick road, use Fishing Worm Ridge for example. We don’t have the straightest kinds of roads in the county. You come down off of the hill on Spring Branch, and there can be a fear of sliding down that hill and into traffic on 56. There’s definitely a risk involved that most people don’t realize. You’re out her by yourself at 3 a.m., but that’s what these guys do. We all try and stay in radio contact with their own crews so you know where everyone is at. If you don’t hear from somebody for a period of time, then you make an effort to get a hold of them to make sure everything is alright.” 

  Keith said that on a normal winter day — like last Wednesday — he left his house and went to check roads and bridges on his own.

  “Typically I have my own route that I run and then check to see if I need to call the guys out or not,” he said. “Today (Monday) I made the call yesterday (Sunday) to have them come in at 4 a.m., anticipating what was coming in. Not knowing what (Superintendent) Rod Hite was going to do as far as school. That way we were already out on the roads prior to the buses leaving — if he decided to have school on time.

  Switzerland County Schools were closed on Monday; and then had a two-hour delay on Tuesday.

  Keith said he works very closely with Superintendent High and also School Corporation Transportation Director Cindy Welch throughout the winter months.

  “Rod and I tall frequently,” Keith said. “Sometimes we can plan, but other days we can’t anticipate what might be coming and when. Today (Monday) they’ve been calling for snow all day, but we haven’t seen it. So some mornings are going to be ‘play it by ear’. There’s no use having 15 guys come in here and just sit if there’s nothing going on.”

  The entire highway crew works together to get the overall job done in an efficient way. With 9-10 trucks on the roads, other crew members are at the ready to load trucks as needed; and a mechanic stands by in case there is a breakdown or some other issue.

  Trucks come back when empty to be re-loaded at one of two county loading sites: one at the highway garage in East Enterprise; and a second on State Road 129 just north of State Road 56, west of Vevay.

  Keith said that the county highway department primarily uses both cinders and salt to treat the roads here. He said that the temperatures of the roadways is a factor as well as air temperature when deciding what to use on roadways.

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  The crew of the Switzerland County Highway Department includes: Highway Superintendent Darrell Keith, Steve Auxier, Ernest Bovard, Mark Covington, John Day, Eddie Haskell, Don Herndon, Andy Hunt, Dennis Hunt, Dusty Hunt, Vernon Martin, Barry O’Neal, Kyle Riley, Roger Satterfield, Steve Shackleford, and Dave Shelley. Carla Armstrong is the Highway Clerk.