Public works crews for the city of Independence perhaps saw a bright side from the unseasonable precipitation that fell this week.

It gave them a chance for some practice with new technology before more intense winter weather possibly hits this season.

After last winter, which could be politely described as challenging for any area public works crew, Independence installed automatic vehicle locator software in its snow plows and trucks. The new technology uses GPS to allow drivers to track both their own and their colleagues' progress. It's on a tablet affixed next to the cabin’s plow and spreader controls – similar to the computer setup for a police officer in a patrol car.

“On that system, it has our snow routes, and all our drivers can track their salt usage, whether or not they're plowing, using wing plows,” Arroyo said. “It reports it all to a central location, and we're able to pull these reports live and see live where these guys have been and what roads have been treated.”

That ability to communicate, he said, is “insanely different” from before, and it's a two-fold benefit. Besides workers being able to keep track of each other, ideally making operations more efficient, drivers don't have to use print-out maps.

“It was very time consuming, to make sure they didn't miss anything,” Arroyo said, “but with this technology they can just zoom in on the tablet and see if they've been there.

“It also makes it a lot safer for the drivers,” he added, noting that in windy, snowy conditions at night, it can be hard to see and drivers sometimes had to pull out a flashlight or even get out of the cab to view a map.

Fortunately, the first go-live event with the new software proved minor enough that it wasn't too stressful, Arroyo said, and crews had already prepped the vehicles for winter storm use.

“It happened a little bit sooner than we expected, but the guys have been at it for two weeks getting everything done,” he said.

Eventually, once the online live feed public map is completed, citizens will be able to check and see where plows have been and where trucks have treated streets. It won't be kept in real time, Arroyo said, but will be updated in some kind of timed interval – perhaps every 15, 30 or 60 minutes.

“We might try different times and see what works best,” he said of the public map. “We did want to get a couple storms under our belt and make sure it's doing what we expected it to do and showing the information we expect it to show us.”

Overland Park and Johnson County, Kansas, have a different version of the same vehicle locator technology, Arroyo said, and other nearby cities are considering purchasing it. Springfield has the same technology as Independence, he said.

“It's been around for a little bit, but it's evolved,” Arroyo said of the new technology. “It's the next evolution.”

Salt and street priority

Last winter forced Independence – and many other public works agencies in the region – to order additional salt before winter finally ended. This year, Arroyo said, they doubled their preseason order, from 2,500 tons to 5,000. The city had about 200 tons left after the last snow.

“We were cutting it close,” he said. “That was maybe enough for an event like (Wednesday).”

Public works has also simplified its street levels for winter weather – from four to three.

Priority streets are roads that carry the highest level of traffic and generally have three or four lanes. Secondary streets are those that connect priority roads to residential streets. Residential streets include cul-de-sacs and dead ends.

Arroyo said staffers determined street levels by traffic volume and emergency responder access needs.

“All these streets are important,” he said, “but we ask for everyone's patience as we work around the clock to treat our streets in these storms.”