Cancelling GPS Hurt Snow Removal

Cancelling GPS Hurt Snow Removal

Difficulties dealing with three feet of snow in six days were to be expected as Anne Arundel County was pummeled with two back-to-back massive storms starting February 5th.   All of us owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the hundreds of plow operators who worked 12-hour shifts or longer every day for more than eight days in cold, dangerous and exhausting conditions.  Unfortunately, these plow operators were not deployed as effectively as they could have been because we didn’t use existing technology to manage the snow removal operation.

In 2004, the county invested in Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment for all its plows so it could track where the plows were and which streets had been plowed.  To track the progress of plows operated by outside contractors, the county planned to give operators GPS-enabled cell phones.  However, to save money, the county chose several months ago not to pay the airtime charges necessary to use the GPS system this winter. 


Operating each plow’s GPS unit costs about $200 in airtime charges for the four months when snow is likely and GPS-enabled cell phones for the contractors can be leased extremely inexpensively.  In order to save less than $25,000, the county gave up the capability of receiving reliable data on which streets had been plowed.  Instead, supervisors were driving back and forth trying to keep track of where the plows were.  The dispatchers telling the plow operators where to plow next were unnecessarily flying somewhat blind.    


With the county having spent more than $10.5 million so far this year on snow removal, giving up the ability to use GPS technology to dispatch the plows in order to save a small sum of money was unwise.  Use of the antiquated system resulted in some roads being plowed repeatedly while others in the same neighborhood were never plowed at all, according to the results of an online survey I conducted on Wednesday, February 10th.


Forty percent of the 99 survey respondents reported they were still snowed in on Tuesday night when the second storm hit, and the county announced on the afternoon of Friday, February 12th that 40 percent of residential streets still did not have at least one passable lane.  Since there must be heavy overlap between the two groups, it appears that close to 40 percent of Anne Arundel County residents were snowed in for at least a full week starting Friday, February 5.  A week is a very long time to be unable to leave your neighborhood to go to the store or to work or to access medical care, and it is a shame if some of these families could have been plowed out earlier.


The GPS system also could have been used by the county to better communicate with residents.  It was impossible to learn which county streets had been plowed, let alone when a particular street might be likely to be plowed in the future.  All phone calls were routed to the county’s Emergency Operations Center where a recorded greeting directed you to the county’s web site and told you to hang up unless you wanted to report a fallen tree.  The county’s web site contained general information about snow removal priorities, but no useful information about the county’s response to the current storm. 


By comparison, Howard County provides detailed maps, updated every 15 minutes, showing which streets have been plowed and/or salted and the current location of all their snow plows.  After a modest upfront investment, they’ve been providing this useful real-time data to their citizens for five years now at an annual cost to the county of only $10,000. 


It is not fiscally prudent to purchase and maintain additional county vehicles to deal with rare occurrences like the recent back-to-back major snow storms.   However, it is reasonable to expect Anne Arundel County to utilize inexpensive technology to manage its operations as efficiently as possible and to better communicate with its residents.

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