Unsung heroes keep plows on the road

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Mike Heine
Friday, February 8, 2008
— “We should be on Mike Rowe’s ‘Dirty Jobs,’” Jeremy Jacobs said as he hurried out the door with a few gallons of diesel for an out-of-fuel plow truck.

The Walworth County Public Works Department shop foreman and his shop-mates have a dirty job that might intrigue the host of the popular Discovery Channel show: being a public works mechanic in a snowstorm.

When a blanket of clean, white snow covers the highways, it’s time for the mechanics to get grimy, greasy, salty and wet.

“When the trucks are full of snow, ice and salt, the fellas will put on a rain suit to go under the truck. It’s not a pleasant situation,” said Mark Mullikin, Walworth County Public Works superintendent. “They suffer through a lot of things that aren’t well known about.”

“It’s a miserable job,” said Larry Price, Mullikin’s equal in the department.

“In a storm like this, those trucks are just caked with slush and snow. It’s like working in the rain when you get underneath there. There’s nothing worse than fixing a hydraulic line. It’s bad news.”

Like the drivers, mechanics often stay overnight at the public works department, especially when they know plowing will continue into the morning.

They’ll inflate air mattresses in the beds of their personal pickup trucks or find a cot, conference room table or space on the shop floor.

“It’s hard to get comfortable,” but it’s necessary, Price said.

Whenever Walworth County plows are on the road, there is at least one mechanic on the clock.

With as much snow as we’ve had this winter, the five county mechanics and the welder have been working plenty, said Steve Kinney, assistant shop superintendent.

“Right now, there’s a real team spirit and effort going on here,” he said. “Everybody really steps up to the plate. Everyone understands that if someone is not pulling their weight, it’s twice as much work for the next guy.”

Mechanics do it all, from changing carbide blades on plows, to installing hydraulic lines and diagnosing faulty electronics in a salt spreader, Mullikin said. Most repairs can be done in-house, but sometimes they need to improvise.

“If you break something in the middle of the night, you can’t run down to NAPA and buy it,” Price said.

The mechanics take care 45 plow trucks, a handful of smaller trucks, tractors, sheriff’s patrol cars and more. They also fix broken municipal plow trucks when they’re needed quickly, Kinney said.

During the snow, priority goes to keeping the roads open and the public safe, Mullikin said.

“They’re the unsung heroes of the operation,” Mullikin said of his mechanics. “Everybody here has an integral part in it. The mechanics play a huge part that few people know about.

“They basically run a pit stop operation. If a truck breaks down, they’ll get it in the garage and jump on it. Many times, a serious repair will be done in a short amount of time, and that truck will be out on the road.”

Last updated: 5:10 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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