1/30/14 ABSS scouts road conditions

ABSS scouts road conditions
By Isaac Groves, The Times-News 1/30/14  
Reprinted with permission.      

   By the time the word gets out that schools are closed, it has already been a long day for people in the Alamance-Burlington School System.

   “There’s a lot more to that decision-making process than people realize,” said Al Smith, transportation director for ABSS.

   Cancellations or delays announced at 5 or 6 a.m. are frustrating for parents, but with ABSS on Saturday makeup days already, it cannot afford unnecessary closings. With inexperienced drivers heading into the high schools, though, it is a decision the system does not want to get wrong.

   And, generally, no one is sure roads will be slick until the hours before dawn.

   Staff from ABSS get out on the roads at 3:30 a.m. to find slick spots and take road temperatures, Smith said.

   Smith, Johnny Rogers, ABSS maintenance director, and Lillie Cox, ABSS superintendent, are among five or six people who go out to test the roads. Rogers said. They have the county broken up into quadrants.

   While they cannot check every road, Rogers said, “We all know of the trouble spots, and we go there first.”

   Smith said the roads running east-west are the most dangerous because they get the most shade.

   Smith said he will test slick spots with a brake-tap to see whether he can get a slide going, or hit the gas a little hard and get a spin started.

   He has more scientific ways to test the roads, too, like a surface temperature gun to see whether the asphalt is cold enough to form ice. Smith gives extra attention to bridges, where there is no heat from the ground to prevent freezing.

   Once they identify slick spots, Rogers said, Smith will contact the N.C. Department of Transportation to put salt and sand on the ice.

   “It’s not just the school system involved,” Rogers said. “Everybody is in the picture.”

   All the road scouts will talk on the phone and give Cox their information, Smith said. She will make the decision.

   If schools are closed, calls have to go out to media and staff by 5 a.m., Smith said, before bus drivers start coming in. Once things get started, it is hard to shut everything down.

   It is an easier call when temperatures are in the single digits. On those days, the danger is not slick roads, but broken-down buses, frozen water lines and stalled heaters. A delay gives maintenance and transportation staff the chance to make sure things are working.

   “You hate to have students standing at the bus stop and the bus is down,” Rogers said.

   In some of the older buses, and most are as old as 14 years, Smith said, cold weather will keep them from starting.

   Many need a squirt of starter fluid, but not just anybody can do it, Smith said. Too much and the engine can blow a head gasket, “turning a $15,000 engine into junk.”

   Rogers said his maintenance staff also has to check for frozen water lines and shut down heating systems in schools.

   Wind and freeze settings designed to protect the heaters mean maintenance staff have to turn them on manually. In some cases, those systems will send an alert to Rogers, but he has been doing this kind of work for too long to rely on that.

   “In a few sites, we do have the luxury of depending on the computer,” Rogers said.

   Others require a “hands on application,” Rogers said.