Snow fighting rodeo: what effort goes into keeping schools open?

This week’s snow storm officially dropped just under 10 inches of new but heavy, wet snow on the City of Fargo. With each new winter weather event, several dozen Fargo Public Schools employees head out into the elements in order to ready the District’s buildings, sidewalks and parking lots for the next day of class.

The decision on whether to cancel school is a complicated call. After the call has been made, have you ever wondered what goes into removing all of that snow? Here’s a Q&A with Maintenance & Operations Director Jim Frueh.

For a storm like the one we just got, how long does it take us to dig out? Finish up?

That depends on where we stop digging out. It’s typically a two-day process. If we get 6-8 inches of snow, then it takes one day for parking lots, and a second day for the sidewalks. If we get a lot of snow, then it usually takes a third day to remove the piles from the parking lots.

Depending on how much snow has fallen, our crews will begin snow removal at 10:00 p.m. or midnight of the night before classes begin. On Monday, crews began coming in at 6:00 a.m., because classes and activities had already been called off.

What sort of strategy do you use to remove snow District-wide when a storm is expected?

Depending on how the snow is blowing, we may not go out to the schools in open areas right away. Ground drifting can become problematic at those sites, and so it’s sometimes better to wait until closer to the end, and meanwhile, clear the sheltered, more protected buildings first. The general order of work is parking lots, sidewalks, piles. Early on, all of the fire exit doors have to be opened first, as well as the sidewalks extending from them.

What sort of equipment do we use? Do we own all of it? Do you have to have certifications to use any of it?

We own:

  • 2 bucket loaders with box plow attachments (We use these on our biggest parking lots.)
  • 8 three-quarter-ton pickups with snow plow attachments (These travel everywhere in FPS.)
  • 2 dump-body trucks (for hauling the snow piles away)
  • 1 Bobcat Toolcat with a plow attachment
  • 1 Bobcat skid-steer with a plow attachment
  • 5 John Deere dual-function lawnmower/snow throwers (located at our largest campuses)
  • 1 Toro deck lawnmower with a five-foot snow thrower attachment
  • Several walk-behind snow throwers and older John Deere dual-function machines at our elementaries
  • A whole bunch of shovels!

For our tandem-axle truck, you have to have an air brake certification on your license, but not for anything else on the list above.

The box plows we use on our biggest parking lots. They don’t turn well in small parking lots. We do those with pickups. Additionally, we use a third dump-body truck owned by the Fargo Park District for hauling snow piles away.

How do we maintain/repair this equipment?

Larry Wallander, our mechanic, repairs most of our equipment in the downtown shop. We also fix equipment at the grounds shop located west of 25th Street. This weekend we had a transmission cooler break on one of the bucket loaders; our dealer (Titan Machinery) fixed that.

How much do we shift people around during the snow-clearing battle?

Our snow-fighting force is dependent on who’s in town, or can make it. Our people are pretty good about that. Sometimes the HVAC and summer grounds crew team members will help out. If there’s one thing our crews do really well here, it’s move snow, and that’s hard work.

How are our people compensated for their work?

It’s all hourly work. With a snowstorm like the one this week, it wouldn’t be unusual for the price tag to reach $8,000 for wages and fuel.

How much of our snow removal is contracted out?

We contract snow removal at four of our buildings: Centennial, Discovery, South High School’s south parking lot, and all of the Davies High School site. Smithco, a Fargo general contractor, handles our contract work. That’s also at an hourly rate.

Do you work with the City of Fargo to clear any of our property or the sidewalks around it?

No. We do all of the sidewalks around our property. And it’s just as annoying for us when the big street plows come by and push a wall of snow back across the curbs!

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