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SNOW MEN PDF Print E-mail
Written by Carol Pomeday   
Wednesday, 09 February 2011 18:38
                                                                            Photo by Sam Arendt

When a monster of a blizzard attacked last week, the Ozaukee County snowplow cadre battled back with 41 snowplows, including the giant V-plows some consider dinosaurs, fighting to keep 654 miles of roads open.

When a blizzard like the one-two punch that hit Ozaukee County and much of Wisconsin last week is predicted, the adrenaline starts pumping in the men who man the county’s 41 snowplows to clear 654 miles of roads.

“Yeah, it starts pumping,” said Bill Janeshek, who has been driving the big machines for 24 years and is foreman of a snowplowing crew based at the county’s highway department in Port Washington.

Crews also work out of Waubeka and Cedarburg.

“When I was younger, I couldn’t wait to get the call to come in,” Janeshek said. “Now, I’m the one who decides who should get called in. If it’s snowing out, I get very little sleep. I’m planning the day in my head — Is there enough snow that we need the
big equipment? Do I have to call the part-time guys in? Every storm, every day of a storm is different.

“Visibility-wise, this storm was one of the worst. It was bad Wednesday. I’ve never seen the expressway that bad.”

Snowplow operators, like firefighters, police and other emergency personnel, often miss birthday parties, anniversaries, school plays and holiday gatherings to keep the roads open so other people can get to those events.

Fortunately, the light snow on Sunday didn’t require anyone to miss the Super Bowl, so Janeshek and other plow operators could watch the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers to bring home the Vince Lombardi trophy.

A BIG V-PLOW machine operated by Paul Weidert (left) with Kurt Kraus guiding the wing plow was needed during last week’s blizzard and cleaning up the aftermath.
                                         Photo by Sam Arendt
This is also the first year Janeshek wasn’t called out Christmas or New Year’s Eve.

“You almost always get called out on one or both of those days,” Janeshek said.

“My sons know when it snows, daddy will be gone. We have to go out if it’s 30 below zero and windy.”

He may not get the same adrenalin rush as he did in his 20s bursting through snow, but the satisfaction when all town, county and state roads in his section are cleared is just as good.

“We got a call today from the state (Department of Transportation) saying what a good job we do keeping I-43 open,” Janeshek said last Thursday.

The county’s seven big, four-wheel-drive V-plows with wing blades were needed during last week’s storm, he said.

“We wouldn’t be open if we didn’t have them,” Janeshek said last week.

“A lot of counties have done away with them because they’re expensive to buy and expensive to maintain, but this storm was an example of why we need them. We’re like a fire department. These are emergency vehicles and our insurance to keep the
roads open.”

The big plows require two men —one to drive and operate the front V-plow and the other to handle the wing blade.

Part-time employees, usually construction workers who are laid off in winter, are trained to handle the wing plow. They ride with the same plow operator each time.

Casey Frey, who is a mason in warm weather, said he looks forward to being a wingman for his friend Kyle Schueller.

“It’s really kind of fun. We get to spend the whole day together,” Frey said. “It’s something to do in winter when I’m laid off. I’m helping out everyone else so they can get out.”

Wally Rassel, who lives in Farmington, tries to get extra sleep when he hears a storm is coming.

“I pack some clothes in case I have to stay overnight and make a bigger lunch,” he said. “During a storm, we can be plowing for 16 hours.”

Rassel, who slept at the county garage so he could be in his plow truck by 4 a.m. Wednesday, is one of three operators who keep I-43 open during storms. He plows and salts the section from Highway H to Highway C.

Dan Zuelsdorf of Cedar Grove handles the freeway from the Sheboygan County line to Highway H. He deals with a lot of drifting from open fields.

Jim Noster of Belgium clears from Highway C to the Milwaukee County line, where there is less drifting but more traffic.

Rassel has been plowing the expressway for 15 years.

“You’re dealing with 10,000 cars a day vs. 10 cars per day on rural roads,” Rassel said. “But they’re all going in the same direction. That does help.

“This storm was dramatic in the number of people who stayed home. I never saw it that empty on a weekday, but we still had an awful lot of cars in the ditch and median.

“We see a lot of four-wheel-drive vehicles and pick-ups in the ditches and medians. We always say the four-wheel drive only gets you a little farther in the ditch than two-wheel drive.”

Drivers are usually cautious and courteous when it’s snowing, he said, but have less patience when plows are cleaning up after a storm.

“As soon as it stops snowing, they drive 75 mph like it’s summer,” Rassel said.

During the last storm, most crews started at 4 a.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and worked until 6 to 8 p.m. all three days. Night-shift operators keep the interstate and state highways open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., working extra hours if needed.

“The goal is to have no one plowing more than 16 hours without sleep,” Janeshek said.

The county’s contract with the state requires I-43 and state highways be maintained around the clock.

But that’s not the case for county roads, which are usually plowed from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m., except Fridays when plows will be on the roads until 9 or 10 p.m., Janeshek said.

“We’re in direct contact with the sheriff’s department. If there is an emergency, they’ll call us to see what roads are open,” Janeshek said. “If needed, we’ll send a plow to clear a path for the emergency vehicles.”

The county plows rural roads in all townships except the Town of Cedarburg, which has its own snowplowing operation.

“We figure we can make one pass through all the roads in 4-1/2 hours,” Janeshek said.

Vehicles that attempt to go down unplowed roads and get stuck hamper operations. If the vehicle is blocking the road, the operator will help free it, but the owner must hook the chain to the vehicle to avoid county liability, Janeshek said.

It’s easy to make a plow operator happy, he said — stay off the road until the plow has made at least one pass, stay 200 feet behind the plow, which is a state law but rarely observed, he noted, and give a friendly wave.

“The guys said they had lots of waves from people during the storm,” Janeshek said. “People know when the road is not open, and they’re glad to see us open the road for them.

“The guys really appreciate getting a friendly wave rather than a shaking fist when they go past a driveway.”

Janeshek has another snow-related job.

He is a mailbox inspector. If a mailbox is hit by a snowplow, the county will repair it after the storm. However, if snow damaged the mailbox, even snow thrown from a plow, it’s the owner’s responsibility.

“I do a lot of mailbox inspections and call back residents,” Janeshek said. “I’ve had very frustrated people on the phone. Some of them are understanding. The worse the storm is, the more understanding people are.”

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