Facilities prevails during winter storm

Grounds Manager Dave Fitzgerald has committed himself to battling Berkshire winters for the last 29 years. Photo credit: June Han

While students lay in their beds on Feb. 11, Dave Fitzgerald and his team in the operations department of Facilities were hard at work for the College; the Facilities team had known about the impending storm for days and spent the night anticipating its arrival.

Prior to every snow storm, Fitzgerald and his team come up with a “game plan,” altering their response according to the quantity, consistency and timing of the snow predicted. As grounds manager, Fitzgerald is in charge of overseeing the organization and execution of tasks assigned to 17 other Facilities workers.

Fitzgerald walked me through the game plan that the Facilities team devised for the latest snowstorm, which began last Wednesday at 11 a.m., went throughout the night and ended midday on Thursday. Since the storm lasted for 24 hours, it was important for the staff to divide into teams that alternated shifts so that no one put in long hours and grew fatigued. It is common for teams to work for 12-hour shifts, but Fitzgerald never assigns shifts over 16 hours for his workers. As a result of this, the challenges posed while plowing rarely have to do with human error. The most consistent challenge that Facilities workers encounter when it comes to snow control is mechanical breakdowns. “You’re always going to have a piece of equipment that’s going to break,” Fitzgerald said. Facilities keeps a running inventory of spare parts, but some machinery malfunctions require new parts that are not readily available. During the last storm, a piece of plow frame broke, which was not in stock. Luckily, Facilities had time before the next snowfall to order the part, but this time slot is not always available. The Facilities team, in addition, works to keep ahead on its sand and salt supply. The sand and salt storage building holds 300 tons of material, and Facilities ensures that the supply is 50-60 tons ahead when a storm is in the forecast.

Grounds management, however, is not the only section of Facilities that deals with snow control. Storm response is “a big team effort that involves the entire Facilities operation,” Fitzgerald said. Grounds management is in charge of streets and the turf field; anywhere a plow can access on campus. The custodial operation and trade shops are in charge of clearing snow from sidewalks, entryways and stairs – jobs that often involve shoveling. Whereas the majority of this shoveling occurs during working hours, the grounds management crew can be called on throughout the night to deal with snow control.

Although Facilities is diligent in checking weather predictions and planning in advance for storms, there are occasional weather surprises. Fitzgerald recounted the tedium of plowing a parking lot when the predicted snowfall was one to two inches, only to have to cycle back an hour later and clear another few inches from the same space. Even so, his attitude regarding this winter is indisputably positive. “It’s a good feeling now that the days are getting longer, the temperatures are starting to rise … We can still get snow, but we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

In April, Fitzgerald will celebrate his 29th year of working at the College. Before working in Facilities, he worked for three and a half years as a horticulturist at a private estate outside of Great Barrington, Mass. He describes his work in horticulture as “a lot of fun,” but as grounds manager he is responsible for more than just overseeing the garden maintenance that occurs in the spring and summer. Fitzgerald explained that snow control is more stressful than grounds operations in other seasons because “snow can happen at any time, 24/7, and we have to respond.”

When asked if he still gets excited for the first snowfall, however, he assumed a momentarily melancholic tone. “To be honest with you, I used to like winter, before I had to deal with snow control. I used to do a lot of downhill skiing. But I don’t particularly care for winter anymore. I’m always thinking about potential storms, even on weekends. Maybe when the day comes that I retire, maybe then I’ll feel differently. We’ll see.”