Plow drivers fight fatigue to clear roads

Gerald Farwell will realize he’s tired behind the wheel of his snowplow the moment he falls asleep.

Farwell, the road agent for the town of Brookline, was joking, of course. But as with anyone who clears streets of snow and ice, drowsiness is an inevitable element of the job.

To resist shuteye, a plow driver must follow a routine for his hours-long task – a reliance on habits that help him stay attentive on roads blanketed in sleep-inducing white.

These customs include seeking the perfect amount of sleep before work, having the proper food and drinks in the truck, and sneaking in just a bit of sleep during the job.

Farwell tries to nod off shortly before a winter storm. How much sleep does he get?

“Not enough,” he said. “I’m getting old. Ten years ago, it was a piece of cake, but not now.”

Farwell, 46, offered insight into his plowing preparations as he lay in bed Saturday afternoon. He was about to nap for about two hours before the arrival of a storm that was expected to bring as many as 9 inches of snow to the area.

In Nashua, two other municipal employees sought a little quiet Saturday afternoon before dealing with the monotonous drone of their truck engines and the constant scraping of steel plows on asphalt.

Dan Odierno relaxed with his family and watched the NFL playoffs before heading into the city Department of Public Works garage off Riverside Drive.

Because it was a weekend and he didn’t have to work, Odierno slept until 10:30 a.m. and kept activities to a minimum. It’s tougher to start plowing during a workday; there’s little time to unwind beforehand, he said.

His colleague Mike Harris took a different approach Saturday afternoon. Harris slept for about two hours late in the day after running errands with his family.

“We’ll work until Sunday night,” Harris said. “It will be a long day.”

Once behind the wheel, Farwell drinks water and fruit juice. Odierno and Harris like caffeinated drinks. They both gulp a few Red Bulls during their routes.

Harris also goes for soda. Odierno likes Gatorade and water, and he’ll dip some chew.

“It keeps you occupied and it keeps you alert,” Odierno said.

A plow driver for 13 years, Odierno tries to avoid junk food. But if he plows through the night, dining options are limited and he resorts to fast-food places.

Plowing and sanding requires fastidiousness to detail. A driver sweeps through the same streets several times and knows the terrain well. But even though he’s prepared for the upcoming pothole or jutting mailbox, he also has to expect the unexpected.

Working Broad Street and the Pine Hill Road neighborhood, Harris is particularly watchful around the Nashua Mall area. Traffic is tough there, he said, and Harris – also a 13-year veteran – never knows when a car will come close to his truck.

Odierno added, “You have to be awake for stuff you don’t know about. If it’s night, you see drunk drivers coming out of parties. Or you see house parties with 90 cars outside. Each storm does provide different stuff.”

Harris listens to country and rock music on his iPod to stay alert. When his eyes get heavy, he stops the truck, stretches his legs and buys coffee.

He, Odierno and the other drivers also will meet at the garage for a break. But they don’t stay long, Harris said. Otherwise, the snow will pile up, he said.

If the urge to sleep is too powerful, Farwell said he pulls over and sets his cell phone alarm for a 15-minute power nap.

“You can tell at some point,” he said. “You just can’t go anymore.”

Once refreshed, it’s back to the same old, same old.

“It could be worse,” Farwell said. “Times are slow. I’m not complaining at all. I could have nothing to do.”