Shawano County ready for winter weather

Crews responsible for 1,750 miles of state, county, town roads
Kevin Passon

Just as sure as death and taxes, Wisconsin winters mean snow, wind and ice — and that means snowplows.

For the next four months, the Shawano County Highway Department office will be staffed 24 hours a day to monitor the current road and weather conditions and forecasts.

“We staff 24 hours a day from Dec. 1 through April 1 and even started a few days early this year,” said Grant Bystol, Shawano County highway commissioner. “We monitor the weather through something called the Maintenance Decision Support System (MDSS), which is set up by the state.”

The MDSS enables a storm manager to view hourly weather forecasts and gives recommendations for treatment up to 48 hours before a storm event. Information from MDSS can include temperature, dew points, wind direction and speed, times of expected precipitation, frost forecasts, hourly pavement temperature forecasts for the next 48 hours, pavement treatment recommendations and more.

“We also use the sheriff’s department, as they are our eyes and ears on the road,” Bystol said. “They’ve been a great help over the years.”

Shawano County crews were out the morning of Nov. 30 to treat ice on the roads.

“We were out today for bridges and overpasses,” Bystol said. “With 89% humidity and temperatures around 25 degrees, it made for some slick roads.”

Drivers can appreciate the spreading of salt and sand on the roads, but the real thanks comes in when heavy snow starts to accumulate.

Shawano County crews are tasked with clearing 1,750 miles of state, county and town roads. That’s the equivalent of driving from Wittenberg to Pulaski 35 times.

“We have 43 trucks to clean those 1,750 miles,” said Bystol, who will mark 20 years with the department next year. “We don’t always send them all out at once, but that’s what we have.”

Plows are stationed at three highway department sites across the county – on Highway 29 west of County Road J in the Town of Morris, on East Richmond Street at Industrial Drive in Shawano and on Highway 55 in the Town of Maple Grove.

During severe weather, various employees report to an assigned site to begin their duties.

Road priorities begin with the state highways in the county, per a contract with the state. County roads are next on the list, followed by those town roads the county has contracts to maintain.

Bystol said the state recommends not being out on the roads from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. due to budgetary concerns and the lack of drivers out at that time of the night.

“We don’t have day crews and night crews,” Bystol said. “We have one crew, so severe weather events mean overtime. If we can keep them off the roads in the middle of the night, that helps.”

A five-year average for snow removal costs is used to help determine each winter’s budget.

“If we run over, we need to adjust somewhere else in the budget, maybe in the summer months or maybe somewhere else in the budget,” he said, “but we are going to clear the snow no matter what.”

The winter of 2023 was a bad year for the budget.

“Last year, we were up 26% over our five-year average,” Bystol said. “We had a lot of snow, ice and other weather incidents.”

That included a storm at the end of February that dropped 18 inches of snow.

Bystol also recalled the winter of 2018 that saw crews out on the roads every single day in February, on top of their other work responsibilities.

He also reminds drivers to be extra cautious when driving near snowplows.

Most collisions between snowplows and other vehicles occur when the snowplow is rear-ended, usually by a driver traveling too fast for conditions. Snowplow operators may need to slow down or stop as part of their operations. Visibility is poor during major winter storms and is another reason to simply stay off roadways until conditions improve.

“State law requires drivers to stay at least 200 feet behind a snowplow engaged in snow or ice removal on any highway with a posted speed limit of more than 35 mph,” Bystol said. “Also, plowing snow from private driveways onto the roadway is illegal.”

This causes many concerns for public safety as well as damage to vehicles and plowing equipment when piles of snow are left on the roadway or shoulders.