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At War with the Elements

Snow storm spotlights Herndon Public Works employees' annual battles against winter.

With a mixture of thick gobs of dark snow and ropes of sleet clanking noisily against the yellow-painted hood of his street salting truck, Bo Kirk grips the heavy door and hoists himself up into the main seat.

With a turn of the key the smell of diesel fuel smoke mixes with the truck cab heater and is followed by the steady rolling hum of the industrial engine. The high-pitched beeping sounds reverberate against the other trucks in the backlot of Herndon Department of Public Works before the veteran town employee knocks the truck into gear and makes his way towards the gate, ready to reassume his role clearing Herndon's streets as he began the fourth hour of a 12-hour shift.

Kirk functions as a group leader for the other trucks on the road while he is working. Wearing forest camouflage hunting coveralls, he keeps his long hair tied back in a rubber-band pony tail and the beginnings of a beard on his cheeks, reddened from the freezing night temperatures.

"See what I'll do here is I'll lay a little more of this salt and rock dust here at the start of the intersection," Kirk said, pulling up to Herndon Parkway on Sterling Road as he flipped a switch to widen the trucks spray of the material onto the street. "This way, as cars pass by here throughout the night they'll grab some of it and drag it into the intersection and clear some of this ice."

"It's the little tricks of the trade like that ... you've got to be able to really feel the road doing a job like this."

It was a little after 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 13, about the 12th hour of a winter storm that would ultimately escalate to dump about six inches of snow and sleet on Herndon, causing local schools to close for the next three days.

LAST TUESDAY NIGHT'S winter storm required four trucks doing continuous patrols throughout the night, dumping tons of salt and special traction rock dust to increase the safety and drivability of the town's roads for motorists.

While last week's storm resulted in regional school closures and cost about $54,000 to combat, it was not the worst that Herndon has ever seen, Kirk said. One snowstorm in 1998 required the use of all the town's trucks, a large portion of the staff and cost the town about $126,000 to contain, he added.

Presently, the town has 20 trucks that can be deployed as needed to improve roadway conditions, according to Sonny Lynch, Herndon public works superintendent. All members of the department of public works have skills that can be utilized during a snow storm he added, from mechanics actively repairing trucks to administrators coordinating coverage.

The majority of expenses incurred fighting most snowstorms is covered by the Virginia Department of Transportation, according to Kirk, who manages the storm management invoices.

Herndon's Department of Public Works was one of the highest-funded departments in fiscal year 2007, receiving more than $8.5 million for operations and salaries, approximately 20 percent of the town's total operating budget.

BUT FIGHTING WINTER storms out in the field has a lot more to do with a familiarity of the town and what storms are capable of than it does with numbers and statistics, Kirk said.

As a native of Herndon and graduate of Herndon High School, Kirk has worked more than a quarter-century in the Department of Public Works and knows the four-square miles of the incorporated town like the back of his hand, he said.

"This one was my main street, so I've hit this one pretty good," Kirk said as his truck lumbered on to Elden Street. "Now I'm going to focus on the arterial streets and see if we can get those under control."

Choosing strategy in fighting winter storms has a lot to do with realizing that no two are alike, Kirk said, the sooty gray mixture of ice and snow slapping against the sides of his truck.

"Every storm is different, you'll never have two that are exactly alike, sometimes you'll get more snow, sometimes you'll have more ice, it all depends," Kirk said. "You need to keep in mind the well-traveled areas, the important routes, the streets that are especially difficult to drive on when the weather is like this."

Those road segments include some areas that are not part of proper Herndon, such as following Elden Street down to clear a path to Reston Hospital for emergency first-responders and the quick-freezing on- and off-ramps of Fairfax County Parkway, he said.

BACK AT PUBLIC Works headquarters, Lynch and equipment technician Mike Farr, surrounded by maps of Herndon and an assortment of pastries provided for the overnight crew, watch as images of people pushing their cars off of snowy roads are broadcast on a 16-inch television. It is a little after 11 p.m. and a local weather radar in the corner of the screen shows that the heavy part of the storm has started to shift away from the town and temperatures are falling.

"Let's just switch it over to rock dust and just getting that all down now," Lynch said, speaking to his truck drivers through a speakerphone.

During the course of the night, Lynch monitors the storm using local meteorological coverage. Pairing that with the realities that his field crew is reporting to him, he makes decisions as to the composition of the material being used to enhance road conditions and the number of people on duty. As storms of all kinds are often unpredictable, this is an ongoing process that requires attention to detail and teamwork, he said.

Truck drivers and public works administrators will meet prior to the start of a shift to divide up sections of the town, based on conditions and number of drivers, and set primary objectives for clearing the roads. Throughout the night public works employees are regularly in contact with the Herndon Police Department to make sure officers have the necessary support they need to patrol the town effectively, Lynch said.

"Once we get working on a storm, we'll get a good feeling of what we need out there and adjust our plans accordingly," he said. "We need to make sure we're watching a storm, 'cause you don't want to go out there and expend all our resources all at once if you're going to get a warm morning and watch all that snow go down the drain."

The 12-hour overnight shifts can be tiring, especially if they are combined with work earlier in the day, Lynch said.

"I don't get bored, but if I want something to do, I'll go out with a truck or go talk with the mechanics," he said. "I definitely go through a lot of coffee and Diet Cokes."

BACK OUT IN the snow, Kirk said that tackling the overnight snowstorms can be a fun part of the job, but one that requires a lot of patience.

"It can be a fun challenge, but it also can get to be exhausting for you body," he said. "You see a lot of the guys talking to each other over the radio, keeping each other entertained."

Within seconds, a conversation about Valentine's Day gift ideas for girlfriends between two of the drivers crackled over the radio.

"It's things like that," Kirk said, "the guys joke around some time, tell stories about the snow monster or stuff like that."

Despite the challenge and long hours, Kirk said that he could never picture himself doing anything different.

"I was born and raised here and this is my town and I love my job," he said, changing the settings on his truck to dump more salt on to Monroe Street. "I think that you'd find a lot of the guys out here would say that."

"A lot of it is a professional pride thing. We like our streets to look real good."