In days of ice and snow, it’s up to College Grounds employee Bill Ackert to clear the roadways. But the job of dealing with unforgiving winter weather is much bigger than just Ackert or his plow.
Clearing the College’s campus of snow involves dozens of personnel, heavy-duty gear and thousands of pounds of salt.
“It truly takes all of us. It’s not a one person thing,” said Ackert. “It virtually takes everybody here at Vassar grounds to do snow removal in order for it to be successful.”
According to Buildings and Grounds staff, Vassar contains approximately seven miles of roads and eight miles of sidewalks, as well as nearly 40 parking lots, and all of these surfaces must be kept walkable in the event of a blizzard. Plowers and other Buildings and Grounds staff work long hours in fearsome weather. Sixteen-hour shifts, Ackert said, are not unusual.
Grounds Manager Kevin Mercer keeps tabs on the weather reports whenever large weather systems pass through the area. When the storm of Feb. 14 was approaching, the plowers kicked in before the first snowflake hit the ground. The crews pretreated the paths and roads with a salt grind, which prevents snow from accumulating. By that night, conditions were looking good. The snowfall had abated and the roads were clear.
“The day went through and we were really clean as of nine to 10:00 p.m.,” said Mercer. Wanting to give the Grounds staff a few hours of rest, he explained how he kept a bare-bones crew overnight, and sent the rest home.
It was then that the snowfall resurged.
According to Mercer, no one, not even the weather services, had anticipated so much snow to come down that night.
“They predicted six to seven inches. In reality, we got 12 to 14 inches,” he said. “So the crew could not possibly keep up with the snow accumulating up to three to four inches an hour.”
The winter of the past months has seen more than its typical share of blizzards. So when the last one hit, the campus had too much snow and not enough places to put it.
The equipment itself was pushed to a breaking point: Two of the snow blowers broke down, according to Mercer. Piles of snow grew so large that plows were physically incapable of moving them.
Mercer said that in times of overwhelming snowfall, Grounds will make clearing certain paths a priority. Snow removal will focus on the campus arteries that Mercer sees as most essential for the student welfare.
“My goal is to keep paths open from student dorms to the ACDC,” Mercer said. Also among the top of his priorities is open access the other dining services like the Retreat, and pathways to the Baldwin Health Clinic and the Athletic and Fitness Center.
This year, the Grounds staff faced what they described as their toughest winter in almost 20 years. A staff member of Buildings and Grounds estimated that, in the last two weeks alone, Custodial Services has distributed almost five tons of salt and snow melt to the residential houses. Mercer, meanwhile, said that so far this winter season, Grounds has used roughly 75 tons of salt on Vassar roadways.
“We did our very, very best to do what we could with limited equipment to help open up this college, but it was very challenging to say the least,” said Mercer.
“That day I worked 13 hours, went home, slept for three hours, and then came back and worked another 12 to 14 hours,” said Ackert.
Ackert has been working at Vassar for 34 years, mechanic Mike Jobs for 33 years , while heavy-equipment operator Steve Bathrick is pushing 30. They all agree that this season has been the toughest since the winter of ’95 and ’96.
While Grounds clears the paths between the structures on campus, the department of Custodial Services removes snow around the entrances and exits.
Manager Cynthia VanTassel described how a crew of 47 janitors are responsible for clearing all entrances and exits of buildings, as well as the area immediately three feet beyond the buildings. Just like Grounds, the snowstorms of the last weeks have strained Custodial Services.
“This has been an absolute challenge. There is a lot of snow out there to remove,” said VanTassel.
The fluctuating temperatures offered no relief. Snow melts and falls off the roofs to the ground only to refreeze at night, and janitors had to re-clear entrances several times in one day.
“How long can you shovel in a day?” she asked. “Can you shovel for ten hours? How effective are you? You just wear out physically.”