As sleet, snow and freezing rain fell on Oklahoma City roadways Thursday evening, Larry Fleming took on what might have been the most unappreciated job in town.
Fleming, a 52-year-old Oklahoma City native, punched the clock long before ice and snow started to fall. As his 12-hour shift started, he changed into his fluorescent yellow coat, knit hat and insulated jeans before getting in his tandem-axel diesel dump truck. As the public was being warned to stay off city streets if possible, Fleming did the opposite.
Fleming operates heavy machinery for Oklahoma City.
In short, he's a snowflake first-responder — the man behind the wheel of a plow truck that removes snow and ice while spreading chemical salt blends that keep city streets drivable when a wintry storm hits.
“This is basically just being on-call,” Fleming said. “This is our job, to take care of the city whenever we're having a disaster.”
Fleming is one of about 150 workers who drive 33 trucks in two shifts. The trucks carry up to nine tons of salt blend in one load. The fleet was out in full force Thursday as the National Weather Service estimated the metro area could receive up to six inches of snow and sleet.
“This isn't bad,” said Fleming at 4 p.m. Thursday. “Even if we had two or three inches out there, we can open these major routes pretty easy.”
Fleming has been operating heavy equipment since he was 15 and has worked for the city for the past three years. He qualified for his position by passing a series of tests on a backhoe, front-end loader and grater.
Oklahoma City tests Fleming and other members of the road crew annually with classes on how to operate equipment and specific teamwork strategies to better remove snow. Fleming said the perception of his position as a kick-back job is laughable.
“You get tired,” Fleming said. “You've got to try to eat regularly and get a decent meal. If you're out here 12 hours, and you do that for four days, your body starts running down.”
Danger of other drivers
The other obvious challenge is the danger of driving on icy roadways. But it's not the conditions that are most threatening to Fleming's safety. It is other drivers. He said it is important to abide by the “stay 200 feet back” sign on the rear of his truck.
Fleming remembers one incident last winter when he nearly collided with a passing car.
“Our guys were blocking traffic, but the guy just went right around him,” Fleming said. “I turned around to go the other way and I was inches away from him.”
Fleming enjoys the winter aspect of his job, considering it's just a fraction of his total workload. It varies depending on the winter season, but he usually won't spend much more than a week behind the wheel of a plow truck each year.
“You're doing the same basic job, but you get to go to a lot of different places,” Fleming said. “You're not looking out the same window every day.”
When Fleming isn't working, he can be found tending to the cows and horses on his property near Moore. He's also a competitive roper. But after a 12-hour shift maintaining winter roads, there's only one place he wants to be — in bed.
“It doesn't take long to go to sleep when you get home,” Fleming said. “Then it's back at it tomorrow.”