Road crews plan for COVID cases

If we get COVID in the garage, that means all five of us are going to have to stay home and quarantine. And then we’re going to be in trouble.
— Jim Larrow, Vergennes Public Works

ADDISON COUNTY — With COVID-19 spiking, Addison County’s municipal highway department heads are working toward a written mutual-aid pact that would make formal existing handshake agreements to help each other out in times of need.
The fear is that enough members of a town’s road crew, and their subs, could be sick with COVID-19 and not be able to clear snow from the roads at some point this coming winter.
According to three who have pushed for such an agreement — Shoreham highway department head Jason Paquette, Ferrisburgh road foreman John Bull and Vergennes public works head Jim Larrow — highway department heads are ready to sign a pact and forward it to selectboards.
“That was the sense I have gotten from them,” said Paquette, who has been running county road heads’ monthly meetings, including a well-attended gathering on Nov. 18. “We’ve all been doing this verbally for years. It is time to put something on paper and get it adopted by the selectboards.”
For sure, Bull wanted to let county residents know roads would almost certainly be getting plowed regardless — town departments have always had each other’s backs.
“This Addison County foremen’s group has been exceptional, and we’ve always worked under the mutual-aid agreement as a handshake,” Bull said.   
But all three agreed on the pluses of a formal agreement: clarifying liability, helping towns obtain federal funds after disasters like Tropical Storm Irene, and reassuring residents that roads will get plowed if COVID-19 hits their highway departments.
Larrow addressed that issue.
“We’re just concerned. I have five guys in my garage. And if we get COVID in the garage, that means all five of us are going to have to stay home and quarantine,” Larrow said. “And then we’re going to be in trouble.”
And, he noted, the answer is not as simple as hiring someone off the street. Plowing routes must be learned, few are licensed to drive the trucks, and even fewer are interested in the hours and the job’s challenges. Larrow described the work:
“You drop the (plow) wing on your passenger side and suddenly it goes out of sight, and you have no idea where it is. You’re driving vehicles around mailboxes and power poles, and it’s snowing an inch an hour and the wind’s blowing and you can’t see.”
Paquette agreed on Nov. 18 to be the point person on drafting an agreement, with Bull and Larrow among those who will review it. Paquette will also check with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns on legal questions and look at Rutland County’s agreement to see if there is anything that can be cribbed.
If all goes well Paquette will present a proposal when the group meets on Dec. 9. 
“I’ve got some work to do on it here in the next week, for sure, and I hope to have a little help. But hopefully we can put something together,” he said. “We want to keep the agreement as short and sweet as we can, but we want to make sure our bases are covered.”

Another model exists that Paquette, like Larrow a firefighter, can look to: Addison County’s fire departments have a strong tradition of mutual aid. 
“It’s no different than when we have a structure fire,” Larrow said. “We call our surrounding towns.”
Larrow said fire department agreements can also apply to the liability question. With fire departments, liability for mishaps tracks with the responding department, and not with the towns that departments help as mutual responders.
Larrow sees a highway department agreement working the same way.
“It’s just something stating in writing that we would be willing to go into another town and help them, and they would not be liable for it,” Larrow said. “If I go into the town of Ferrisburgh and go on through and sideswipe a car, it would be under our insurance, not theirs.”
All agreed the chance for FEMA reimbursement after a natural disaster is a carrot for moving forward, not that towns wouldn’t help out in a situation like Irene. Bull and Larrow sent equipment to Rochester, for example.
“Of course, when we went up there before, nobody asked for a penny, and nobody would, and they would help us, too,” Larrow said.
But they also know their departments’ and communities’ budgets are tight, and they learned after Irene no documentation meant no money. 
“We knew to be qualified under FEMA we needed a written one,” Bull said. 
Paquette believes selectboards will sign off on such an agreement because of that potential benefit, the liability clarity, and the backup for their road crews heading into this winter.
“It’s going to give them maybe a little sense of security knowing that we’re talking about it among ourselves and that we’re going to try to have some sort of working plan in place just in case something goes bad for one town or multiple towns,” he said. “We’re all hoping to keep ourselves safe, and hopefully we won’t have this problem. But we have to plan for the worst.”
If they don’t, Bull said business as usual will probably suffice, though. 
“We’ve already been doing this for the last 20 years. I would say there isn’t a season that goes by where one of us isn’t sending a body or a piece of equipment to help somebody out,” he said. “We just understand it’s a benefit for the community as a whole.” 

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