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01-03-03: County crew plows through heavy-duty snow
The Daily Standard
    On most days, Brad Laffin can be found working a variety of heavy equipment at his job with the county highway department.
    When the snow flies, though, Laffin climbs behind the wheel of a 28,000-pound, tandem-axle Mack and patrols his familiar 37-mile route in southern Mercer County.
    Laffin is one of 13 county workers who hit the road Thursday as snow began to fall early in the day.
    "Working the same route every year is a big advantage," Laffin told a Daily Standard reporter who rode along with him Thursday afternoon. "You really get to know the area and know what to expect."
    His route includes all or portions of Cassella-Montezuma, Fort Recovery-Minster, Huwer, Mercer-Darke County Line, Watkins and Cranberry roads.
    The biggest difference between operating the graders and backhoes that usually are part of his job and the snowplow is the 12-foot snow blade mounted on the front, Laffin said. Angling the 1,000-pound blade reduces its width to 10 feet, but it is still a challenge to manage because most county roads are only 18 feet wide.
    "People are usually pretty good about it. They get over as far as they can," Laffin said.
    On the side of the road, of course, are mailboxes, which only occasionally become the unwitting victims of the plow's power.
    "Really, 98 or 99 percent of the time, it's the weight of the snow that knocks them over," Laffin said.
    It is easy to tell what a particular mailbox's fate was, he said. If the snow is the culprit, the box is simply pushed over, and maybe its post broken. When the plow actually makes contact, the box is virtually obliterated, he said.
    The county used to replace all fallen or destroyed mailboxes but new Engineer Jim Wiechart rewrote the policy for this winter season. Now the county will only replace those mailboxes actually struck by the plow.
    The front faces of mailboxes are supposed to be three feet off the edge of the pavement. Few appear to meet that standard.
    "There's still a lot of them awfully close to the road," Laffin said.
    Plow drivers also come across cars in the ditches from time to time. When they can, the drivers will assist motorists in getting back on the road, Laffin said.
    But it is also possible for the mammoth plows - nearly 50,000 pounds fully loaded with salt - to also get stuck in a ditch. Sometimes another nearby plow can provide the necessary assistance; other times it requires the services of the county's wrecker, which also goes on duty when the snowplow operators are called in to work, Laffin said.
    The snowplow crew includes 13 drivers with another half dozen or so backups. The county garage also has two large V-plows - designed to drive down the middle of the road and push snow to each side. Those plows are only mounted on the trucks in the event of extremely heavy snow and Laffin said he remembers them being put into service only once in his 14 years on the job.
    Like driving any vehicle, conditions dictate speed, Laffin said. The plow's immense weight also requires extra stopping distance. On this day, Laffin settles in at about 40 mph.
    "Today isn't too bad," he said. "Once the side ditches fill with snow, though, it's really easy to lose the sides of the road."
    By mid-afternoon, the squawk of the radio breaks the monotony. County garage Superintendent Rick Newcom advises the fleet that the storm is breaking up. He tells the drivers to finish their routes and head back to the garage, located at the Mercer County fairgrounds.
    It is not always this easy.
    Laffin and the other drivers were called in at 2 a.m. Christmas morning and worked through noon. They worked another five-hour stint later that same day.
    Families of plow operators learn to understand that all plans are tentative based on Mother Nature's mercy. When snow strikes late in the day or overnight, plow operators can expect to be on the job about 2 a.m., Laffin said. By doing so, they can have a complete loop through their assigned territories finished by the time school buses roll and first-shift workers leave home in the morning.
    Despite the boredom that seems inevitable with mile after mile of white landscape, the constant rumble of the engine and long hours, Laffin said a bad storm easily holds a driver's attention.
    "When it's really bad, you don't get bored at all. You're on the edge of your seat," he said.


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