Have you ever awoken to the hiss and hum of a large, slow-moving machine outside your window?
Perhaps it was one of the city of Vancouver’s street sweepers, a massive truck with many attachments — large, circulating brushes, a powerful vacuum and even a sprayer, all of which work together as a sort of Zamboni for pavement.
But instead of smoothing ice, it’s sucking up debris to not only make the 1,900 lane miles of paved streets in Vancouver more aesthetically pleasing, but also to serve a larger purpose: keeping storm grates clear to prevent flooding. The program also works to meet the requirements of the Department of Ecology’s municipal stormwater permit.
“What flows down the stormwater drain could also pollute our streams, rivers and wetlands. To best protect our waterways, only rain should go down the drain,” said Loretta Callahan, spokeswoman for Vancouver Public Works.
In order to clean Vancouver’s storm drains and streets, the city has a fleet of six sweepers including a loaner, according to Bill Lamkin, 52, a maintenance worker for Vancouver Public Works for the last 12 years. Stored at the city’s Operations Center on East Fourth Plain Boulevard, workers tackle the city by neighborhood, while major arterial routes are generally swept at night, according to Callahan. These days, Lamkin, a veteran operator, drives a sweeper generally once a week, he said. People from the maintenance department rotate on and off the job, but Lamkin indicated that may change.
“They want dedicated operators. They had us rotating all the time. We were one of the few municipalities that didn’t have dedicated street sweepers. Now the pluses and minuses to that, yeah, you have somebody who can operate the machine, but they can’t back you up in construction,” Lamkin said.
On a recent weekday, Lamkin, a lifelong Vancouver resident, navigated the streets in a residential area of the DuBois Park neighborhood, picking up debris, mainly fallen leaves and pine needles, some of which were beginning to gather around storm grates. As the fall season comes into full swing — officially beginning today — the maintenance department takes the spotlight.
“When the leaves come down, it’s our department’s time to shine,” Lamkin said. “We’re trying to get that material out of the road as fast as possible so they’re not flooding the roads.”
The Columbian caught up with Lamkin to learn a bit more about sweeping:
Is work increasing because of the change of the season?
It’s starting to. We’ve had a focus of having at least two employees on average during the day and three on a graveyard shift. This street sweeper could see as much as 16 hours of operation a day during two shifts. This is the most articulate machine in the fleet because of all the stuff that is on it. The mechanical brooms, the hydraulic brooms, the pickup head, the intake fan, the pumps for the sprayers spritzing the water, and all that. When leaf season comes we’re racing everywhere and then we also have people who are going in trucks and they’re hitting hot spots. We have a list of hot spots of all the catch basins where we have big trees and stuff where we know debris can collect really fast in a rain event. We’re trying to get that material out of the road as fast as possible so they’re not flooding the roads. Our department is affected by the seasons.
How many miles would you say you’re covering?
Depending on the debris we’re picking up, you can average about 16 miles a day on a good day. If it’s thick, you may get 8 to 12 miles because you’ll fill up your hopper and have to take a trip to the dump.
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What do you think is important about this job? What’s to say that people couldn’t just suddenly do it themselves?
Basically, it comes down to the nature of the beast. You’re looking at literally hundreds of yards of debris that fall in our streets year-round. You need an organized process to take care of this. There are so many layers to this. You’re looking at street sweeping, but you’re not seeing the roots that connect to the other sources. If everyone was to do it themselves, would everybody agree to do it at the same time, to do their share? Would you have people who wouldn’t? If you don’t, are you willing to hire a contractor, privately willing to shoulder the costs? This is the first line of defense for water treatment. If you leave that debris in the road, if you don’t have a way to get all the debris out of the road, all that ends up, that grate will get filled. It will get covered, it will get flooding. This, by far, takes most of the debris out of that equation.
What are some misconceptions about your job?
Especially during leaf seasons, it’s sort of disheartening that you’ll go through, you’ll clean the road and it’ll look great and you know in six hours it’ll be peppered again with leaves. It’s a little frustrating. If we go through your neighborhood and we clean it, it’ll stay clean briefly. But we probably won’t be back quickly even if it gets full again. We’re racing around the clock, we have three shifts at that point.