Public Works: the ‘other’ first responder

By Sara Bruestle | Feb 19, 2014
Photo by: Sara Bruestle Dave Lange and Marty Martinis of the Mukilteo Public Works Department stand next to 100 tons of sand left over from the last snow. Crews laid 150 tons of sand on city roads Feb. 8.

When you think of Mukilteo’s “first responders,” you probably don’t think of Public Works crews – though, technically, they are.

Just like police and firefighters, the city’s operations crews are called to help in a number of emergencies. They close off roads, clean up collisions, clear snow and ice, and lay sandbags to prevent flooding.

“We are first responders, too,” said Marty Martinis, streets lead for the Mukilteo Public Works Department. “We’re on call 24/7.”

I went on a ride along with the Public Works crews to get a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to do their jobs.

Spoiler alert: It’s sometimes dangerous, sometimes gross – and a lot of hard work.

The department is in charge of the engineering for and maintenance of city-owned infrastructures: buildings, streets, right-of-ways, parkland and the stormwater system.

On Feb. 10, I rode an hour with each of Public Works’ four crews – parks, streets, stormwater and facilities – as they worked to maintain the city.

Parks

The parks crew maintains nearly 500 acres of parks and facility grounds throughout the city.

The four-man crew keeps busy mowing and edging lawns, weeding, pruning bushes and trees, fertilizing, cleaning restrooms, picking up trash, irrigating, emptying garbage cans and removing graffiti.

They do the occasional odd job, too, such as planting flowerbeds, installing park benches, power washing the totem pole, and decorating the city Christmas tree.

The crew’s top priority is Mukilteo Lighthouse Park – they can be found there cleaning up every day.

“It never gets missed,” said Christine Allen, parks lead for the department. “It is taken care of every day of the year.”

After Lighthouse Park, the crew’s other priorities are Rosehill Community Center, Mukilteo City Hall, 92nd Street Park and the Mukilteo Pioneer Cemetery, followed by all other parks.

“Right after Memorial Day weekend, it’s on,” Allen said of Lighthouse Park, adding that the crew gets help from weekend and seasonal workers. “It’s ongoing, keeping this park looking like it never gets used. It’s constant, fast-paced, always on your feet.”

Streets

The streets crew is in charge of caring for 67 miles of city roads, including sidewalks and right-of-ways.

The three-man crew is tasked with sweeping streets, plowing snow, laying down sand, mowing right-of-ways, cutting back blackberries, spray painting crosswalks, clearing shoulders, replacing and installing signs, patching asphalt, and fixing and upgrading sidewalks.

They also get service requests from residents – any odd job that involves streets.

“I have a [tall] stack of them that we have to take care of,” Martinis said. “It’s unbelievable.”

The crew has been busy replacing upwards of 275 street signs, such as stop or yield, because they no longer meet reflectivity standards. They need to replace every sign in town.

“It’s pretty amazing how bad the signs are in this city, when you really take a look at them,” Martinis said. “It’s crazy.”

One of the trio is all street sweeper, all the time – in a good week he’ll sweep for 40 hours. He even does maintenance on the street sweeper, so that their crew of three seems more like two.

Stormwater

The Public Works stormwater crew has just three men, too. They maintain 35 miles of stormwater system.

The crew is in charge of cleaning detention ponds and catch basins, clearing storm drains, inspecting vaults, installing and repairing parts of the system, opening and closing the boat launch, patching asphalt and locating utilities.

They go underground to do a lot of their work, as most of the stormwater system is buried.

“We’re lucky in this town that we’re perched on a hill,” said Mike Arnett, lead of the stormwater crew. “Towns that are flat have trouble getting rid of stormwater, where we don’t.

“The only trouble we have is sometimes it goes where we don’t want it to go.”

New development sometimes challenges the city’s stormwater system and can create issues.

Impervious surfaces – sidewalks, streets and rooftops – don’t allow water to seep into the ground. As these surfaces increase, so does runoff, which rushes into the Puget Sound.

The stormwater crew monitors the system, and works to prevent or fix any issues that may cause erosion and flooding.

“We don’t want people getting wet, of course,” Arnett said.

Facilities

The Public Works facilities crew is the smallest of them all – it has just one handyman to take care of all the city buildings, including the Mukilteo Light Station.

He is Jeran Hurst, tasked with replacing lightbulbs, painting siding, cleaning gutters, repairing heating and cooling systems, hanging whiteboards and in-boxes, helping with remodels, building cabinets and desks, unclogging drains and more.

He gets service requests from staff for any odd job where a handyman’s help is needed. If he can’t fix it himself, he assists a contractor.

He’s also gets quotes from contractors and orders parts for repairs.

It’s a hard job because some tasks just can’t be done alone. That’s when he asks for help from the parks, stormwater or streets crews – but they can be busy with their own jobs, too.

“There’s a lot of stuff I should be doing ... that I just don’t have the time and/or help to do,” Hurst said. “It’s tough.”

He said the lighthouse and the fire stations keep him busy because they’re “of a certain age” and require a lot of maintenance.

When shorthanded, Public Works crews “borrow” from other crews whenever they can. A parks worker may help streets one day or vice versa. All of them know how to work the street sweeper and snowplows.

“Everybody here wears multiple hats because we’re so small,” Arnett said. “Do we go out and mow? Sure we do. Do we go out and street sweep? Sure we do.

“If we didn’t all wear different hats, stuff wouldn’t get done.”

Maybe they’re not police or firefighters, but I now know that Public Works employees also have to be brave.

They risk their lives whenever they fell a tree, go underground into a vault, or work in or near the streets, especially on the Mukilteo Speedway.

“Anything in the streets is dangerous,” said Darron Callahan, who specializes in irrigation. “Sometimes people aren’t as observant as you’d hope they would be, even with signs and cones and orange vests.”

Every day, they also do some of the dirtiest, smelliest tasks out there – many dealing with trash, poop or decaying leaves that I don’t even want to think about. Trust me, it’s gross.

They do it all, though, because that’s what it takes to keep the city clean and safe.

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