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Janesville Water Utility workers kept the water running through record cold winter

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Marcia Nelesen
April 6, 2014

JANESVILLE--The new water guy earned his stripes last winter.

Tyler Brooks has the dubious honor of toiling through the worst season in the Janesville Water Utility crew's collective memory, a season that included a record 82 days that didn't get above freezing.

The number of broken water mains from December through March doubled from the year before—62 breaks to 124.

If that wasn't enough, smaller service laterals froze as the frost crept deeper—six feet in some spots. With the help of a contracted welder, the crew thawed 200 service laterals.

The year before there were none.

Before they'd finish one job, a call would come in for another, foreman Mike Fosmoen, a 35-year veteran, said this week during a group interview with the water crew.

One guy noted he had only one day off in January; another, two. Zero days, one worker piped up. Two in March, said another.

“Five would be the most days we had going back to Christmas,” said Randy Westby.

That includes weekends.

“You take a day here or there,” Steve Brown said. “That's how you get a day.”

That's how they kept the faucets running and toilets flushing. Residents tend to take that for granted until they turn the spigot and nothing comes out.

Crew members kept the water flowing despite ice and sleet and eyeball-freezing cold, even with the polar vortex breathing down their necks. A few of the same guys even drive city snowplow trucks.

After this winter, they deserve a shout-out.

They missed deer hunting.

They worked on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Day and Valentine's Day.

Granted, other people miss holidays because of work, but they usually don't miss them because they're at the bottom of a wet hole, squinting through water vapor that must seem such a cruel illusion.

If workers don't find the break in the first hole, they punch out another—through ice, snow, asphalt, dirt and rock-hard ground frost.

“It's tough work conditions,” Tony Coulter said simply, possibly the understatement of the year.

The water guys seem to take it all in stride. They don't much grumble. They haven't killed each other and, in fact, seem to like each other.

No one quit.

Not even the new guy.

Maybe they're too tired.

“We're used to it,” said Steve Brown, 25-year-veteran. “The first couple of times when you start, yeah, it's a shocker. But you get used to it.”

Once last season, someone noted it was Saturday, Fosmoen recalled.

“It's Saturday?” he answered.

He had lost track of the days.

Coulter said that happened regularly.

“You didn't even remember what day it was. When it was over, you realized you had worked 20 hours.”

“You kind of become numb to it,” Josh Running said. “You work 18 hours today, and you do it again tomorrow, and you know you're going to be doing it again on Saturday. You don't get your hopes up.”

They ate fast food constantly, Fosmoen said.

“It was awful.”

“It's a mindset,” Fosmoen added. “I'd go home to a bowl of cold cereal to wake up after three hours and head back in.

“It really helps having an understanding family.”

You learn how to dress for the job.

Everyone's always had an extra pair of gloves on the heater, Mark Langdok said. Lockers were stuffed with changes of clothes. The men warmed up in the truck for several minutes when they got cold.

So what was worst last winter?

The days with wind chills of minus 50 degrees, one said.

How do you dress when it's a minus 50 degrees wind chill?

“You put everything on you own,” Brad Raymer said.

Milton Avenue stands out even in a winter of ugly.

It was one of those zero-degree days like so many last winter.

The crew repaired four breaks in a two-block stretch.

“I just stood there and looked at the ice both ways and said, 'Oh, my gosh,' ” Fosmoen recalled. “I was thinking, 'Where do we start?' ”

The men started at 5 a.m. and gulped pizza for lunch, sent over with compliments from Mac's Pizza Shack.

“It's hard to shut down these jobs when you are right in the middle,” Coulter said.

A repair job on Suffolk Street came in before Milton Avenue was done.

Coulter got home at 9 that night and was back on the job by 6:30 a.m.

People were generally appreciative, Fosmoen said. Sometimes, they'd drive by, hand them hot chocolate or doughnuts and say "Thanks."

The men got through it all because they work as a team, Coulter said. He credits the leadership of Fosmoen and lead Randy Westby, who he said helps keep the crews safe, especially when fatigue can lead to mistakes.

Jim Henning is retiring after more than 20 years with the water department.

“I just kept telling myself, 'It's my last winter.' ”

“I'll probably go one more,” Brown said. “I just hope it's not like this one has been.”

The season isn't quite over for the water guys, although the number of emergencies is dwindling with warmer weather. A crew worked all night on East Court Street into April Fool's Day.

“You look back at it and wonder how the hell you did it,” Fosmoen said.

“If you stop and think about it, you'd never do it again.”



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