Helena officials received 52 complaints about slick streets and 200 requests for service from Dec. 2-Jan. 13, but they say they are working on the problem.
Mayor Wilmot Collins, who took office Jan. 2, said the reports from Helena citizens are a good thing.
"The positive is getting the address, getting sand down," Collins said of the city's response.
But Collins doesn't think that's good enough.
"We don't want to wait for complaints before we serve," Collins said. "We'll be meeting to look at the plan (the city) has in place."
In email exchanges with Helena citizens, city commissioners Robert Farris-Olsen and Ed Noonan echoed Collins, telling residents they will be looking at policies and making decisions related to snow removal.
"I feel frustrated," Noonan wrote, "but maybe we can find a different approach, as well as make some inroads into convincing staff we need an approach specific to this winter's specific circumstance."
When a major storm like the one that hit from Dec. 28-31 drops over a foot of snow in just a few days, driving in Helena quickly becomes treacherous. The roads have iced over in the last week, creating a dangerous sheen.
City manager Ron Alles and public works director Randall Camp are the two officials at the center of snow removal planning for Helena. They see most of the requests for service, as well as the complaints.
The strategy for snow removal in Helena looks like this:
When a snowstorm begins and two inches of snow accumulates, snowplow drivers begin working on emergency snow routes, major arteries and then residential areas and special requests for service.
The city mainly uses sand instead of de-icer because of the large temperature changes common to Montana’s climate, which can make the salt-melted ice and snow refreeze and turn into a more dangerous problem for drivers. However, a small amount of salt is added to the sand to make the sand melt and stick to packed snow or ice in the street.
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Liquid de-icer is used in the downtown business district as long as temperatures are above 10 degrees. And a new salt product called Ice Slicer has been utilized sparingly on around 2 percent of the roads in Helena, according to Camp.
Helena has 10 snowplow drivers, who are responsible for clearing the 220 miles of road in Helena. The number of drivers is similar to what Bozeman and Kalispell have, and less than half what Missoula and Billings have.
If the snow gets really bad, drivers can be borrowed from the solid waste division to drive plows, Camp said. The biggest worry for drivers is fatigue, because driving a large vehicle with a giant blade on the front in traffic for 12 hours at a time is a dangerous game to play.
The current problem is a result of the 13.7 inches of snow that dropped in late December, Alles said.
"A large blast in a short period of time meant some streets were not hit until they were packed down," he said. " ... There was so much snow, plows had to stop and hit emergency snow routes again."
"I think it's evident guys can't be everywhere at the same time ... but they can be assigned quicker and for longer periods of time," Alles said.
In a perfect world, he said, the city would have zero complaints and a plow on every street within two hours of a storm hitting. But he also notes that "perfect is not achievable."
"There aren't resources in the community to do so," Alles said. "I don't think any other community has ever seen a perfect balance."
"I think we can do better," Alles said. "People will see a different response in the next storm."
But Alles is pragmatic.
"It's Mother Nature," he said.