By Andrew Tellijohn
Eden Prairie resident Ken Higginbotham was taking his wife, Ava, to work after a snowstorm a couple years ago when he noticed a distinct difference between his city and the next over.
The roads in Eden Prairie had already been plowed. The other city’s had not.
“Upon returning home, I sent Robert Ellis [Eden Prairie’s public works director] an email with thanks to him and his team for their fine job clearing the streets overnight,” Higginbotham says.
It wasn’t a one-time occurrence, he adds. The Higginbothams are among many regular users of the paved trails in Eden Prairie, particularly those around Purgatory Creek Park and Staring Lake Park, and he notes that they always have clean trails to use soon after a snowfall.
The city often gets credit for its great schools, parks, real estate, and environment for business when receiving accolades, Higginbotham says. “Perhaps overlooked is the broad talent of our city staff, especially with regard to defining, budgeting, and executing service excellence goals,” he says. “It isn’t luck that our public works department is the winner of [a League of Minnesota Cities] 2015 City of Excellence Award for snowplowing. It is the dedication of our city workers with the support of our civic leaders at all levels.”
New leadership ushers in change
During the 2011-2012 snow season, city officials decided to re-examine how the city performed snow and ice removal. New City Manager Rick Getschow and Public Works Director Robert Ellis had each been in their positions for around a year and they’d been hearing comments from the public and city staff about snow removal. While the comments indicated there were no major problems with the existing strategies, their performance could probably be even better.
“They had a lot of ideas, things they thought we could improve on,” Ellis says. “I was interested in sitting down with them and getting their input on any changes that might be needed. I talked with Rick, and he was completely on board with that.”
So they convened the Snow Removal Operations Task Force with about a dozen representatives from different city departments. The staff sold the pair on several changes and investments they thought would improve their performance during snowstorms. Several were tried. Many were kept. Some were tweaked or ditched. But within two years, performance had improved, and Eden Prairie was receiving three times more compliments than complaints from residents.
“We’ve moved from getting a few com¬plaints to getting very few complaints and actually getting compliments on our snowplowing operations,” Getschow says. “It’s the time savings. That’s where you see the positive benefit.” Several of the changes included investing in technological upgrades:
“It was a wholesale change in almost everything we do in snow removal,” Ellis says.
The technologies were augmented by the implementation of the Incident Command Center, where one person can now monitor and manage each piece of equipment out on the job. That means when workers are finishing up where they are, they can be efficiently redeployed by a single orchestrator to other areas of need without everyone talking at the same time over a radio system, Ellis says. Eliminating that radio talk is a huge plus, considering the city can have as many as 50 or more vehicles out during a storm, he adds.
“When they’re all on the radio talking, it’s unintelligible and it’s hard to direct that,” he says. “It’s really cleaned up how we orchestrate that whole deployment of resources and materials. That’s really where we see the most benefit.”
The employee at the command center can also use the technologically collected data to regulate and change the rate at which materials are being spread on the roads.
Program is working
It took a couple years to arrive at the final snow removal program. And Ellis says members of the group still meet before and after winter to discuss what worked well and what tweaks might be needed going forward. But the changes have been noticed to the point where the city last year received 23 commendations from citizens, compared with only seven complaints.
“That’s how we knew the program was working,” Ellis says. “That used to rarely happen.”
The cost of implementing the Road and Weather Information System was about $30,000. The city received a Local Operations Research Assistance Pro¬gram grant of $10,000 from the Minnesota Local Road Research Board to offset the cost.
All of these changes, city officials say, were implemented with the goal of completely clearing all snow incidents within nine hours. However, Ellis says since the new operations were put in place, it’s never taken that long. And the savings created through greater efficiencies in staffing and materials use more than offset the initial cost within the first couple years.
Keith Bartos, horticultural specialist in the city’s Parks Department, sat on the Snow Removal Operations Task Force. He says the changes have had a tremendous impact.
Ultimately, Bartos says, every snow event is different and should be treated differently. That is happening now, he says. Technologically, the ability for someone in the Incident Command Center to know via GPS where all trucks are and have been has made deployment of vehicles much more efficient.
It has also changed the point at which the city starts plowing. Attacking the snow while it is still coming down has proven to be much more efficient than waiting until an event is over, as was previously done, he says. The decision to go to a pre-wetting, anti-icing program to prevent or slow ice from forming on roads has allowed city workers to do a much better job of peeling initial layers of snow and ice away all the way to the pavement.
Additionally, the ability to send an automated message to employees the night before with updates on when or if they are to report to work has eliminated the need for overnight phone calls, Bartos says.
It’s not that the city’s snow removal program was bad before the changes took effect, but it is much stronger now.
“It was way different than how we are managing snow now,” he says. “We attack the snow ongoing throughout the whole event. We use fewer chemicals. It’s actually becoming more cost-effective to handle a snowfall. It was very efficient in the past. Right now, it’s off the charts.”
The changes have also encouraged his colleagues, who he says have noticed that their feedback was listened to and resulted in many major changes.
Happy employees and residents
Bartos commends Ellis and Getschow for being willing to listen to city staff. Ellis adds that he likes to hear from the people he works with, and he feels communication and open-mindedness are critical for success.
While the improvements have boosted staff morale, perhaps even more important, they’ve increased resident satisfaction. Bartos is both surprised and intrigued by the positive feedback the city receives from citizens who actually take the time to call or write about how well their streets and trails are being plowed.
“It’s unheard of,” Bartos says. “I love hearing that. Ultimately that is our goal, to provide the best service we can to every single citizen. That’s our job. That’s our ultimate goal.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.
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