The City of Fernie's pilot snow plow program is ongoing through the 2020-21 winter season. (Soranne Floarea / The Free Press)

City leans in to snow pilot program, commits to keep going with trial

City staff delivered an update on the snow pilot program so far

City of Fernie councillors have received an update on the snow removal pilot program, with a deep dive on the entire process being delivered to the Committee of the Whole.

The city’s manager of sustainable service delivery, Lisa Janssen said that so far the city had not been able to drive the point home on why the program was taking place, explaining that under the previous program there were not enough staff on street crews, there was not enough shift flexibility, community needs were under-served and critical infrastructure was not being made adequately accessible – in addition to the previously reported issues with rising costs.

Janssen said that the community hadn’t been able to see how the city was missing its own goals for snow removal, and how it was having to divert resources from other departments to meet needs.

Manager of streets and utilities, Dustin Haeusler explained that the previous program was too dependent on volunteer overtime to cover shifts, and that was too unreliable a source of labour. Under the new program a new shift program had been developed, with operators receiving ongoing training from which there was considerable improvement.

Snow removal operators have also gone through a significant workforce change, with two retirements, a third going on short-term disability, and another transitioning to a chief role. “Everybody is in a new position,” said Haeusler.

Sadly, Haeusler reported there had been nine incidents of harassment of operators since the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

“Obviously with this large a change to the community we had a lot of angry people confronting operators. (They were) unfortunately taking a lot of heat just trying to do their jobs.”

The report spoke of disturbing incidents among the nine reported.

“This has included residents using vehicles to block plows, attempting to gain entry to vehicles and plows while yelling at operators, and coordinated and repeated calls to multiple staff in the organization,” reads the report.

The detailed report included resident and operator feedback throughout the pilot, with changes being made as the program went on.

Haeusler said that adjustments to operator work included a re-balancing of plow areas based on priorities and timelines, more operators were being dedicated to areas around time to improve knowledge of the streetscape, road priorities were being shifted and more.

One of the major changes was a shift from plowing the driving lane then returning to plow the parking lane, to a curb-to-curb plow on the first pass.

Haeusler reported that while it was quicker to plow the drive lane and return later, feedback indicated that residents preferred a delayed, complete plow as it prevented the need to clear multiple windrows.

So far in 2020-2021, city staff have plowed 19 times with five full plows. Last year, staff only had five opportunities to try the new snow pilot program.

Councillors voted unanimously to direct staff to continue with the Snow Pilot Program as is in order to gather more information on the viability of the new program, with the changes that were implimented mid-pilot retained, and ongoing feedback to guide future changes.

The entirety of the City of Fernie document on the Snow Pilot Program update is available on the City of Fernie website, while discussion of the update on Feb. 16 is available on the city’s Facebook page.

READ MORE: City soldiers on with snow plow pilot
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