(Times Bulletin/Lindsay McCoy)
VAN WERT - Van Wert County snow plow drivers have had a busy schedule this winter season with snowfall totals already exceeding the yearly average by the middle of January. It is the responsibility of county engineer supervisors to make sure the job gets done and roads stay clear during this excessively dangerous time for travelers.
As daytime snow operation supervisor, Tim Mengerink is required to be out of bed at 2:45 a.m. when bad weather is expected. He must drive the roads and determine whether plowing is necessary. When short on drivers, Mengerink takes to the plow himself on occasion.
“It is my decision when to call the guys in and how many to call in,” said Mengerink. “When conditions are bad, plow drivers are often required to work 12-14 hour days.” Van Wert County has 11 plow routes which are covered by 11 trucks. When people begin to wonder why a road hasn’t been plowed in so long, it is because one round on a route may take up to three hours, leaving the beginning of the route untouched for that amount of time.
Morning drivers begin their shifts at 4 a.m. Mengerink noted that many drivers enjoy plowing during these early morning hours the most because traffic is minimal. Not having cars’ lights in the eyes of a plow driver, who already has limited visibility, can make a big difference.
“Plow drivers just can’t see, period,” remarked Mengerink. “The snow blows up off the blade onto the windshield. Other drivers should be courteous and give the guys some room. They usually can’t see you behind them.”
Mengerink noted that many drivers don’t give way to plows, and it is actually better for drivers to pull over to the side of the road or simply stop the vehicle when encountering a plow for the safety of all drivers. A plow’s blade is typically 12 feet across and most roads are 18-20 feet wide, if a car becomes stuck near the center of a roadway a plow simply cannot go around them or turn around.
“The main reason we are out there is so that fire and EMS vehicles can get down the road,” said Mengerink. “911 still works at night, and if the plows are not out then emergency vehicles cannot get out. We are out here for the public.”
Ice storms prove to be the most dangerous for plow drivers. When a truck is full of salt and grit, it can weigh up to 60,000 pounds, and trucks can only drive 5 mph at this weight. Due to this increased burden, it is easy for trucks to slide off the road, even at a complete stop, when ice and wind combine. Some drivers are often forced to back down their routes in order to immediately drive on the grit they have just thrown.
Salt and grit does not always look to be present on the roadways after snowfall begins to accumulate. The combination acts as a magnet, and the snow quickly sticks to the salt and grit and covers it.
Trucks also cannot stop well due to their heavy weight. Mengerink referenced bouncing from one side of the road to the other in an attempt to stop, only being stopped by the berm.
“When dealing with ice, your hands get sore from gripping the steering wheel,” said Mengerink. “It is that intense. There is nothing worse, and most drivers would choose to drive through two foot drifts rather than on a quarter-inch of ice.”
The snow removal season typically lasts from Thanksgiving to Easter. A plow driver will typically plow 4-10 hours a day during normal conditions, but this year snow plowed off of the roadways has piled up so high that plows cannot push it back any farther. As a result, extra time has to be set aside prior to the start of plowing to remove the excess snow with a backhoe.
“One of the hardest parts of the job is the hours,” noted Mengerink. “We give up a lot. If the phone rings, you have to go. At the end of the day, drivers often only have six hours for sleep and family time.”
Mengerink has four children and three step-children all between the ages of 18 years and two months. His job causes him to lose valuable family time, but when possible he is also very active in Boy Scouts.
Mengerink, who is also a township trustee, began his duties as supervisor in 1994 when the county was looking for someone to oversee and act as bridge superintendent for the bridge construction crew. The local man immediately took interest in these often tedious and time-consuming positions because they follow the family business and traditions of his father and grandfather.
Mengerink’s father, Eddie Mengerink, was also a township trustee for 12 years. Both his father and grandfather dealt in construction, for their entire lives giving Mengerink a special insight and skills that cannot be learned through traditional schooling.
When not plowing in the winter, Mengerink oversees the pouring of concrete bridge beams. The county has the ability to pour 39-foot beams, and in doing so has saved a lot of money by avoiding the cost of buying beams. In the summer, Mengerink uses these beams to build county bridges.
The summer also brings other responsibilities for Mengerink such as taking care of high-water issues during flood conditions. Mengerink is responsible for placing signs and closing roads when high water becomes an issue. The job requires Mengerink to be a jack-of-all-trades, and he also deals with any road emergencies that arise around Van Wert County.
Mengerink was born and raised in Van Wert County and was a 1981 graduate of Van Wert High School and Vantage Career Center. “I enjoy serving my community and working with the public,” said Mengerink. “I have met a lot of people and made a lot of friends over my 20 years with the county. I work with a good group of guys and enjoy working under County Engineer Kyle Wendel.”
Mengerink is also currently serving on the executive committee of the Van Wert County Township Association and the EMA Board.