Meet some of the Islanders working to keep the roads cleared

Plow dispatchers across P.E.I. have some special tools to help them monitor a storm's path and decide which plow goes where

Dispatchers have some pretty fancy tools to help them do their jobs

One of the 100 or so provincial plow operators is dispatched from the government garage on Riverside Drive in Charlottetown. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Even though Jimmy Rhynes has seen hundreds of winter storms over the past 34 years, he still gets nervous when the forecast calls for nasty weather.

"You get antsy. And you're always wondering if everything's gonna go good and what the weather's going to be," said Rhynes, who's the operations supervisor for Queens County.

"Sometimes you might get a forecast that we're not gonna get all this snow and you do. So you gotta be prepared no matter what comes."

24 hour staffing

The transportation department has about 100 plow operators and 61 pieces of equipment, from tandem truck plows to V plows and snow blowers. As well, 21 contractors are hired to help keep the roads open.

'You get antsy. And you're always wondering if everything's gonna go good and what the weather's going to be,' says Jimmy Rhynes, operations supervisor for Queens County, P.E.I. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The province has dispatch depots in each of the three counties that are staffed 24 hours a day, beginning in mid-November.

One of the people orchestrating who goes where in Queens County is Bill Gill. He's been a dispatcher for 17 years.

Tracking the storm

Gill has a number of tools to help him track the path of a storm, including Environment Canada's website.

But the most important resource is the road weather information system. It includes six video cameras on roads across the province that offer Gill a live view of local weather conditions.

A plow operator heads to his machine at the government garage on Riverside Drive in Charlottetown. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Five of the stations offer a whole lot more. "They can give us wind speed, and air temperature," Gill said.  

"We can see if there's been salt applied. It gives us the actual temperature on top and below the pavement. We have sensors installed right into the pavement."

Public helps out

The public also often helps dispatchers out.

"The public is usually great for giving us a head's up if there's issues with the roads," said Stephen Szwarc, acting director for maintenance with the province. "We'll get calls if there's cars stuck or if there's drifts. They're a great resource."

'The public is usually great for giving us a head's up if there's issues with the roads,' says Stephen Szwarc, acting director for maintenance with the province. (Pat Martel)

The plows stay out as long as possible.

"There comes a time you have to make a decision to pull the plows," said Rhynes. "If visibility gets bad, just for safety, for everybody, we sometimes have to pull them off the road for a few hours until visibility gets better and we're back at it."

Helping in emergencies

Even though the plows are pulled during white outs, there are times when emergency calls come in.

Rhynes recalled heading out in one bad storm a few years ago to help a woman from Souris, P.E.I., who was about to have a baby.

The province road weather information system provides dispatchers with important information, such as whether salt has been put on a section of road. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The plan was for Rhynes and his plow to meet up with the ambulance in Morell, P.E.I., but because the snow was so heavy, the wipers on the plow wouldn't work.

"You just can't say, 'Well, we can't go any further,'" Rhynes said. So he and his partner each tied a string out side the window to each wiper, yanking the wipers back and forth. 

"We were able to take her to the hospital and she delivered a baby girl." 

'Doing our best'

During major storms, Rhynes spends a lot of time answering phones, fielding the most common question, "When are you going to do my road?"

Provincial dispatcher for Queens County, P.E.I. Bill Gill says remote sensors installed in the pavement in locations across the province provide a glimpse of road conditions. 'It gives us the actual temperature on top and below the pavement.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

While most are happy with the answer, some still grumble.

"I just tell them we're doing our best here," Rhynes said.

"The boys are out there, they can't see. You're home. They're doing their best and they're trying to keep the roads opened so everybody else can get home safe."

About the Author

Pat Martel

Pat Martel has worked with CBC P.E.I. for three decades, mostly with Island Morning — from a writer-broadcaster to a producer. This year, Pat joined the web team with an eye to create great video. Pat also runs an adult coed soccer league in Stratford. He always welcomes great story ideas that are visually appealing. pat.martel@cbc.ca