City Streets and Parks crews are ‘always about the elements’

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette During last year's snow storm in March and high winds in May, members of the city's department of streets and parks went out of their way in their service to the city. From left is Galen Beach, parks, Tom Gotshall, equipment operator, Dave Johns, utility manager, Chad Echert, city forester, and Shawn Bastian, truck driver.

When a storm swept over the city on May 1, 71 mph winds uprooted trees and blocked many city streets.

Among them were the heavily traveled Confusion Corner at Hepburn and Market streets and Walnut Street in front of the Williamsport Bureau of Fire.

The latter prevented emergency vehicles from leaving the station and posed a threat to public safety in more ways than one.

Every available employee of the city’s Streets and Parks Department was called back to work on short notice that night. Twenty of the department’s 26 employees responded to free up roadways and move potentially dangerous tree limbs.

When roads were cleared, the city crews turned their attention to the city’s parks where they moved downed trees and cleared away dangerous limbs.

“It was chaotic with the amount of trees that came down in such a short period of time,” said Adam Winder, the department’s general manager. “We are limited manpower, we are limited equipment, so to cover the entire city all at once is virtually impossible. Our goal is to make sure that all main thoroughfares, to the hospital and to emergency access, are the number-one priority to open up.”

To make the most of their resources, the department’s employees split into two groups to clear 25 to 30 trees scattered throughout the city that night, according to Winder.

The department’s loader operator, Mark Oeler, took to roads, pushing trees out of the path of traffic until the crew could cut them up and haul the debris to the city mulch yard.

“Confusion Corner for instance,” Winder said. “There was a monster tree that came down at the point there, blocking the road. (A department employee) took it upon himself to utilize the equipment he had and pushed the tree off to the side of the road.”

For those who worked with the department’s employees that night, it was clear that they had gone above and beyond what was expected of them.

“The biggest thing was the amount of hours these guys put in. You can’t thank them enough,” Winder said. “They have issues at their own home, but they forget about that at the time and come in here to accommodate the taxpayers. It’s just phenomenal.”

Tom Cillo, who was the director of the department at the time of the storm, went to the city Bureau of Fire and communicated with Winder and the employees as calls came in from the 911 call center.

“They were a key role back in that storm,” Todd Heckman, city fire chief, said. “Every time we were dispatched for a tree down, he (Cillo) immediately knew where it was at and had guys going that way. It probably cut clean-up time by half over what it used to be like.”

The department prioritized the streets in order to ensure that the roadways and sidewalks were safe for travel and then began working on damage in city parks, notably Brandon Park and Way’s Garden.

“Not that they weren’t important,” Winder said. “They were areas where we could confine people from going into.”

Thad Meckley, chairman of the Brandon Park and Shade Tree Commission, commended the department on both their immediate response to local parks, as well as their work in Brandon Park months after the storm.

“The department was quickly on top of things. Safety issues were addressed immediately,” Meckley said. “They were able to handle things and address them in a timely matter. It’s not just clearing the trees but it’s also the replanting.”

May 1 was just one example of the department’s dedication to serving the community’s residents.

On March 14, in the midst of winter Storm Stella, department employees Dave Johns and Tom Gotchall were plowing snow across the city when they received a call from the department’s office.

An ambulance responding to a call at the Presbyterian home was stuck in deep snow. The men shoveled the snow to the best of their abilities and drove the vehicle out.

In May, the city thanked the men for their efforts with the Mayor’s Award for Valor.

“Many citizens don’t realize how challenging mentally and physically it can be,” Mayor Gabriel J. Campana said. “They are always out in the elements and that isn’t easy.”

For Campana, the amount of work that the department can do with 26 employees is a statement to their tenacity.

“Many years ago, there were 50 employees. Through attrition, they have gotten leaner,” Campana said. “They are lean but they are tough. It means they have to work harder. They work many hours to keep the city as safe as possible.”

But it goes beyond safety, Heckman said, referring to the holiday lights strung on city lightpoles and trees.

“Look at the decorations around town. They’re up and running, they’re gorgeous looking,” Heckman said. “I think there’s pride back in that department, and you have to thank the leadership for that. They all deserve a pat on the back.”