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Keeping the roads to OHSU open is a year-round endeavor

OHSU Road Crew
OHSU Road Crew team member Amanda Ament drives the OHSU snow plow while training with plow drivers from the Oregon Department of Transportation at Government Camp, February 10, 2017. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

With the first day of spring right around the corner, driving in snow is not top of mind for most folks.

Not so for the OHSU Road Crew.

The 15-person team continues to train and make plans for the next round of inclement weather, ensuring Marquam Hill is accessible when snow starts to fly.

OHSU Road Crew
Members of the OHSU Road Crew team spent the day training with the snowplow pros at the Oregon Department of Transportation at Government Camp, February 10, 2017.(OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

The OHSU Road Crew, launched in January 2016, is tasked with maintaining access to the unviersity's Marquam Hill Campus leading up to and during severe weather events. As Portland’s largest employer, and one of only two Level 1 trauma centers in the state, it is critical that OHSU employees are able make it to work.

This past winter marked the crew’s first season behind the plow, and by all accounts, it was a success.

“The timing was crazy,” said road crew project coordinator Jamie Bourcier, with repeated snow events and a single January storm dropping more than a foot of snow in the Portland metro area.

Throughout each event, the OHSU Road Crew worked in tandem with the Portland Bureau of Transportation crews to ensure roads were clear.

“I think it went really well,” said Chad Sorber, road crew manger. “The end result was that we maintained access at all times. The road conditions were actually better on Marquam Hill than they were anywhere else in the city.”

Bringing the road crew project to life required training the right people and acquiring the right equipment. To staff it, OHSU turned to full-time employees and asked for volunteers. More than 100 people responded and 15 were selected.

Crew members are paid their hourly wage or salary, plus an incentive while on snow duty. To be considered, employees must have manager approval, a clean driving record and work in non-critical areas.

“When it’s going sideways we need them. We don’t want to compete with what the hospital needs when it’s all hands on deck,” said Bourcier.

All members of the crew were enrolled in truck driving school where they earned their CDL licenses. For some, this was the first time driving anything larger than their personal vehicle.

OHSU Road Crew
ODOT employee Terry Kennedy (left) talks with OHSU Road Crew member Mike Drahota at the Oregon Department of Transportation at Government Camp, February 10, 2017. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Team members are trained and certified to drive the large municipal-grade snowplow and back hoe needed for snow removal. The snowplow is the same type used by the City of Portland, with a few customizations to handle Marquam Hill’s challenging terrain.

“We have a 600-ft elevation above downtown,” said Sorber. “We are facing East, and the Eastern gorge winds are a big influence on snow and ice in the metro area. And we have two very narrow roads that have a lot of slope on them, so it doesn’t take much to make them impassable.”

During the first season on the road, the crew put 4,500 miles on OHSU’s new snowplow, spread 147 tons of gravel and spent more than 800 hours responding to weather events. During one of the January storms, the crew worked in eight-hour rotations, providing 24-hour coverage for an entire week.

With the snow season barely in the rear-view mirror, the team is already prepping for next season. Sorber says the team is fine-tuning their plowing skills, establishing plans for snow storage and considering expanding road crew services to other areas of campus.

As part of their continued training, the team recently trekked up to Government Camp to train alongside the plowing experts at ODOT.

“It’s a pro-tip session,” says road crew member Aaron Crow, who also is a senior systems applications analyst at OHSU. “We are novices, and now we come to get advice from the pros -- tips and tricks on how to refine our processes and improve the work that we are doing.”

ODOT transportation maintenance manager Will Ewing said ODOT frequently helps train plow drivers, but he can’t recall ever working with teams outside a city entity. He knows that keeping the streets clear at OHSU is a unique endeavor.

“I’d say there are some severe challenges. I’m actually kind of relieved I don’t have that job. There’s steep terrain, windy roads in and out, traffic. You are dealing with a lot of people who aren’t prepared for the conditions that need to get there in a hurry," Ewing said.

“We’re happy to help out with this and pass on whatever information we have that might be useful.”


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