Keeping the streets safe

HOUGHTON – Outside, the bank sign said minus-2 degrees, but John Rudek kept his window open to listen for any mechanical problems with the sand truck he drives for the City of Houghton department of public works.

Before long frozen clumped sand had jammed the chute leading to the spreader at the back of the truck. If the sand wasn’t spraying, the roads would be as slick as if he’d never passed at all.

Rudek found a safe place to park, pulled out a shovel and headed out into the cold to unclog the works.

“You have to be able to go with the flow and roll with the punches,” he said in a ride-along interview Tuesday.

The blade underneath his truck that scrapes snow away ahead of the sand can also freeze up, and the beating the truck takes on a daily basis regularly requires maintenance above and beyond the quick fixes.

“Your mechanic is your best friend,” he said.

Houghton’s DPW has two full-time mechanics, according to Director of Public Works Mark Zenner. In extreme conditions when it’s unacceptable for a plow to be sidelined, one will be asked to work a night shift along with the plow driver.

On-the-fly maintenance is just one of many aspects of Rudek’s DPW job that fall outside a normal driver’s job description. Rudek also needs to use his judgment throughout his shift, keeping track of likely slick spots and adjusting his routes as needed to create the safest driving conditions possible regardless of changing conditions.

“This is my third or fourth time doing this intersection since starting my shift at 5 a.m.,” he said while stopped at the light at the corner of M-26 and Sharon Avenue.

Rudek said he starts his shift by sanding the portion of the city he’s been assigned, normally half the city’s streets. Afternoon drivers, and morning drivers on weekend, cover the entire city.

After that, he uses his judgment, as well as responding to reports from police, public transit or even motorists in trouble. The goal, he said, is to anticipate where accidents can happen and sand preventatively.

Driving the sand truck and other DPW equipment doesn’t require any specialized training, Rudek said, but drivers do need to pass the test for a Michigan commercial driver’s license.

“When I started, I’d never plowed a stitch of snow in my life,” he said. “It’s not hard, but there’s a lot of experiential stuff.”

Zenner said it takes about two years for a driver to really learn his job.

“Having prior truck driving or equipment skills is a plus,” he said. “But over time anyone can learn to be an expert plow driver.”

The most important skill drivers need to develop, Zenner said, is being aware of curbs, cars and everything else that’s going on around them, at all times.

“You almost have to have 360-degree vision, and obviously in those trucks you don’t,” he said. “The operator has to be very attentive to the job.”

Because of the benefits of experience, Zenner said most of DPW’s drivers specialize in driving sand trucks, plows or other pieces of equipment, usually only changing duties when someone retires.

Still, according to Rudek, most drivers do double duty. He said when he finishes his route he often uses a loader to clear snowbanks that would otherwise clog streets and parking lots into trucks which then haul the snow away.

Rudek’s educational background might be considered atypical for a truck driver. He earned an MBA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York State. “I had no intent to go into public works,” he laughed.

Twenty-one years later though, he’s pretty happy with what he considers a fun job.

“It’s entertaining,” he said. “I can’t really see myself behind a desk.”