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Assigning plow drivers to regular routes helps them become familiar with—and avoid—dangerous obstacles like manholes and curb ends. Photo: Greg Nicholas

We used to dread winter in Hamilton Township, N.J. The first snowfall would bring phone calls telling us roads had not been cleared, schools had to delay or cancel classes, and that there had been accidents and traffic jams. The town had been managing snow removal with paper maps, highlighter pens, and Cheez-It crackers.

It was clever but had long outlived its usefulness.

I joined the township as public works director as the winter of 2004–2005 hit. It took only one snowfall to show us our patched-together snow and ice control system needed an overhaul. We knew we had to get our activities organized in a computerized system that would give us the control we needed. We wanted to do two things: First, track which roads had been salted and plowed so we could quickly assign drivers to their next route. Second, reassign drivers to the same routes storm after storm so they could become familiar with the roads.

National Geomatica—a Web-based system developer in Allenhurst, N.J.—had come recommended by Mine Hill, Hightstown, and Mendham Townships, all of which had used their systems to organize such municipal functions as construction permitting, apartment leasing, and asset management.

After evaluating our current system's failings, and the features we needed, the company developed a customized system based on a geographic information system (GIS) that presents and stores data on a computer-generated map. We needed to see salting and plowing movements and snow removal routes onscreen in a timely fashion.

Our new system shows the information on a color-coded display. A control center technician answers radio calls from drivers and enters route updates in the database. Based on the data, the colors of the routes change automatically—for example, when a road has been plowed twice, it changes from yellow to blue. We received minimal training, as this system is easy to use. With it, we can clearly distinguish how many times a road has been salted or plowed. We also can track truck locations and avoid accidental repeat plowing and salting.

Drivers were never assigned regular routes using the old system because we had no record of past removal assignments. Now, with stored storm information, we can keep track of assignments and give drivers the same routes each time. Repeating routes, drivers become familiar with obstacles that can damage plows and equipment, like high manholes and curb ends. It also cuts salt spreading time on primary roads by as much as 50%, reducing costs and letting us plow the roads sooner.

This coming winter, we are actually looking forward to our battle against the snowstorms. — Richard Balgowan is director of public works for Hamilton Township, N.J.