Winter maintenance in Vaughan: Improving operations and communication through an AVL system

Brian T. Anthony
Director of Public Works
City of Vaughan, Ontario

The City of Vaughan is located immediately north of Toronto, and is made up of the five former communities of Thornhill, Concord, Maple, Woodbridge and Kleinburg. With over 220,000 people, it is a mix of urban residential areas, industrial/commercial lands, and rural agricultural properties. In the last five years, the population has grown by approximately 60,000 people. As the population grows, so grows the demand for more information and better service.

One of the 50-plus ploughs and sanders used by the City of Vaughan to maintain its urban and rural road network.

As with any town or city, winter operations within the City of Vaughan are a complex and expensive operation. The city offers multiple services: salting and ploughing of almost 1,000 km of roadways and rear laneways; salting and ploughing of approximately 713 km of sidewalks; and residential driveway windrow clearing (that's removing the pile of snow at the end of your driveway after the plough goes by). The city uses over 110 pieces of equipment to clear winter snow from city streets and sidewalks. Of these 110 units, only 40 are owned by the city; the remainder is contracted. Our annual winter maintenance budget for 2004 is over $6.5 million.

Rapid growth has meant a significant increase in traffic volume on city streets, which causes delays in the delivery of winter maintenance services. In response, the city has constructed one of two additional satellite salt storage facilities. The first additional salt storage and yard location was in the Woodbridge area. Another is planned for the Thornhill community area, and more are planned in the future. With staff and contractors now operating out of three yards (our two existing yards plus the latest Woodbridge site), tracking of the equipment was becoming more and more difficult, especially with the same staffing levels at the supervisory level.

The winter of 2000-2001 was when we knew we were in trouble in terms of tracking equipment and meeting Council's and the public's expectations in terms of service levels and communications to Council and the public. We were hit with two back-to-back storms early in December, and when the first snow clearing operation ran into problems with breakdowns and missed streets, it just got worse when the second storm hit. What made it more difficult was that both storms came in the morning rush hour. We were inundated with complaints about missed streets, sidewalks not being ploughed, and the timing of the driveway clearing operations. We can laugh about it now, but the number of complaints was so high that the city's internal phone system crashed, shutting down all phone service to the city's other departments. At that point, we knew that the entire operation needed to be totally overhauled, better management methods needed to be employed to track the work of city staff and that of our contractors, and we needed to improve our communication to both Council and the public. We needed to look at alternative technologies to meet our objectives.

To accomplish this task, Vaughan's Public Works Department turned to an Automatic Vehicle Locating (AVL) system using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. Basically, there are three components to any AVL system:

  • Vehicle Hardware - These are the "black boxes" that are installed in each vehicle being tracked. The components include a GPS receiver, a radio/modem of some type, and an antenna for the GPS receiver /modem. Optional in vehicle hardware are switch inputs for status reporting (plough up/down, monitoring of salt controls, etc.).

  • Communication System - The communication system is the method by which AVL reports get transmitted to the dispatch center. There are several communication methods that are employed for AVL—conventional radio, trunked radio, commercial wireless data (CDPD), and cellular phones. Economics, availability, and performance issues usually drive the choice of a communication system.

  • System Software - This is often the most overlooked component and, in reality, is the most important. The system software resides at the data or dispatch center, and compiles the data coming from the vehicles in the field. The software generates reports such as vehicle time, mileage, material used, etc. Mapping is another vital component of the software, and must be up to date.

After reviewing and experimenting with a number of systems, we chose the service provided by Grey Island Systems Inc. of Toronto. The process they use is as follows: The system relays information from the vehicle to Grey Island utilizing a wireless text messaging technology. (Currently, we use both Rogers AT&T as well as Tellus to provide the wireless communications.) Grey Island compiles the vehicle location and status onto maps and then in turn, streams the information through the Internet to the end user. We get real-time information anywhere there is a computer connected to the Internet.

The units for the vehicles are simple to install. With two wires for power, two other quick connections for GPS and communications, and a magnetic mounted antennae, installing the units in the various contractors' vehicles was done quickly. Acceptance of this technology by the contractors was the key to our success. They also could see the benefits of this system, as they would be able to tell how productive their employees were and their rate of progress.

Working with Grey Island, the city developed a management tool that we believe is second to none. Staff can monitor the entire operation anywhere there is an Internet connection. In addition to real-time tracking, the system allows us to replay any portion of a storm, and review what vehicle was where at any given time. It provides detailed summaries on every vehicle, including how much salt was used, the number of kilometers the vehicles traveled, etc. With a simple query, we can gather vital statistics and determine fairly accurately the cost of the storm to the city.

The ability to play back a winter operation at a later date also assisted staff in resolving any operational issues between contractors. There is no doubt if and when a road was ploughed. Contractors' start and finish times can also be verified.

One of the residential driveway windrow clearing machines. In this case, it is a modified backhoe with the windrow clearing device attached.

As all of you know, no storm is alike and each storm requires some strategic planning. As noted earlier, we provide driveway windrow-clearing operations, which is a very expensive operation. We pay $4.28 per residential driveway, and there are approximately 64,000 driveways to clear. You can do the math, but it is over a quarter million dollars each storm just to clear the snow from the ends of the residents' driveways. Our Council-approved service level is that the driveway entrances should be cleared within three hours of the road plough passing by. The tracking system lets us determine fairly accurately whether or not the windrow clearing units are on schedule, and through the public website lets residents know where the machine is in relation to their property.

In addition to meeting our residents' and our Council's expected levels of service, we must meet the province's mandated levels of service. For those of you who may not be familiar with Ontario's minimum maintenance standards, Regulation 239-02 was passed in 2002, and sets out a minimum level of service that is to be provided on the various classes of roads. The service level is based on a combination of the posted speed limit and traffic volumes. The regulation covers everything from the time allowed to repair streetlights and potholes, to how quickly snow and ice is to be cleared from the roads. The tracking system allows us to see when the ploughs were on specific streets and allows us to determine if we met the province's minimum maintenance standards.

The Grey Island system can also reduce or eliminate paper timesheets or progress reports in the field. Management staff knows instantaneously what work has been completed and how long the vehicle was out operating. The system keeps an electronic record of each vehicle's activity and much more.

One of the other records the system keeps will be of assistance in meeting any upcoming environmental legislation. A comprehensive five-year scientific assessment by Environment Canada determined that in sufficient concentrations, road salts pose a risk to plants, animals and the aquatic environment. A Risk Management Strategy for Road Salts was subsequently developed to outline the measures that Environment Canada proposes in order to manage the risks associated with road salts. The Government of Canada is not banning the use of road salts or proposing any measures that would compromise or reduce road safety.

Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, the Government of Canada published a Code of Practice for the Environmental Management of Road Salts on April 3, 2004. The Code is designed to help municipalities and other road authorities better manage their use of road salts in a way that reduces harm they cause to the environment while maintaining road safety.

The Code of Practice was developed in consultation with a Multistakeholder Working Group for Road Salts. It recommends that road authorities prepare salt management plans that identify actions they will take to improve their practices in salt storage, general use on roads and snow disposal.

In order to be ready to meet whatever system may be required to monitor actual use, we hooked up all of the computerized salt spreaders to the system so that we can tell at any time what spread rates are being used by the drivers. Currently we have a combination of DICKEY-John Corporation and Compu-Spread units in our own and our contractors' vehicles. With the increasing demands to reduce salt use, it is easy to tell if our contractors are complying with our standards. This is important, as this past winter we have spent over $1.5 million on deicing materials alone.

Since the vehicles can now be monitored via the Internet from a central office or from home at any time, it has provided an effective tool to manage the operation. The city has provided computer hookups at its works yards for not only the city's management staff, but also the contractors' supervisors.

We have also already started installing notebook computers in supervisors' vehicles, giving them access to the information from their patrol vehicles using cellular modems.

Keeping Council and the public informed
So far, I have touched on the benefits the system offered us from a "storm management" perspective. However, the Grey Island system has allowed us to improve communication to our residents and members of Council, and to better manage the public's expectations from us.

During a typical snow clearing operation, the Public Works Department received about 400 telephone calls per hour. Some callers had legitimate concerns or complaints, but the majority just wanted to know where the snow clearing equipment was and when it would be by their house. Again, the driveway clearing operation played a big part of those phone calls. Answering these calls was consuming a great amount of administrative staff time. The investigation of the questions was taking up supervisory staff time and diverting their efforts from the real job at hand: supervising the snow clearing operations.

One of the benefits of using Grey Island's Internet technology was the ability to create a link to the city's website (www.snow.city.vaughan.on.ca) where anyone with Internet access could see the ploughing operation in progress. The system was set up to allow both internal users (the Councillors' assistants and snow call centre staff) and external users (the public) up-to-the-minute information concerning the winter operations.

The Internet technology allowed us to tailor viewing capabilities to the different users of the system. The site that is provided to members of Council and their assistants is similar to the site used by the supervisors, but does not provide them with as many options in terms of data collection. The public site is even less complex and detailed than the Councillors' site, but both have proven to be an effective means of providing real-time information to those who need it.

The public site uses static maps with the vehicle locations transposed on top. During a snow clearing operation, the various vehicles appear on the screen, leaving a trail of cookies every five minutes or 100 metres. The residents can zoom in on their area and can now see how close the plough is to their home, and can also see how close the windrow clearing unit is in relation to the road plough.

The streaming of snow clearing information out to the public over the Internet was a first in North America.

  The snow call centre houses up to eight staff during winter storms.

To better serve the residents who did not have access to the Internet, the City also created a snow call centre, where up to eight staff can monitor the operations on the computer and answer residents' concerns about the operation. A special phone line was set up for the call centre (905-879-SNOW), and a temporary personnel agency provides the staff on an as-needed basis. The use of temporary staff on an as-needed basis allows us to keep our costs to a minimum. Since storms vary in length and intensity, we can tailor the number of staff we feel will be required for each storm event. However, in good economic times, we have found that we have had to hire part-time temporary staff for the winter, as people are not as eager to come in to work on an as-needed basis.

The results of the city's efforts have paid off. Although the city experienced a lighter than average winter in terms of snowfall over the 2001-2002 season, the operations were much better coordinated and complaints were significantly reduced.

Despite having to salt 44 times this past winter (2003-2004), and perform full-scale ploughing four times, the complaints were again much less than last year's, and for the first time in many years staff were actually complimented on the winter operations by members of Council!

Other applications
The use of the vehicle tracking system is not limited to winter activities. The Public Works Department has also implemented the vehicle tracking system in some of the Parks Division's vehicles, as well as in our city and contracted street sweeping vehicles. The street sweeping contractor is paid on a per kilometer basis, and the tracking system provides detailed reports for use when invoices are received from the contractor. Like the snow clearing operation, it also lets staff know exactly what streets were swept and when.

The Public Works Department is constantly looking at implementing the vehicle tracking technology wherever contracted services are used, and wherever the public could benefit from the information. Garbage and recycling collection, as well as rural road grading, are just a few of the other areas that the department will be looking at to have contracted services monitored.

The system does not totally replace the need for additional staff. We still need supervisory staff on the road to perform quality control checks on the work that is being performed. However, the vehicle tracking system is a great management tool that allows existing supervisory staff to do their job better. It tracks our staff's and our contractors' performance, and it provides up-to-the-minute information to the residents on our various operations.

In summary, the use of the Grey Island vehicle tracking system has enabled us to:

  • Better manage our in-house and contracted services on a year-round basis;
  • Provide clear information to members of Council and their assistants on our operations;
  • Provide up-to-date information to our residents concerning snow clearing operations; and
  • For the first time in years, win us accolades from members of Council on our winter maintenance operations.

Brian T. Anthony can be reached at (905) 832-8562 or at Brian.Anthony@vaughan.ca.