Human element remains important as city jobs, equipment evolve
When Street Superintendent Mark Aubol started as a sanitation worker for Grand Forks 38 years ago, trash was thrown into city garbage trucks by two people while another drove.
“It kept a guy in shape,” he said of walking behind the trucks and hefting trash into them.
Fast forward a few decades and new equipment advances have ended the need for a three-person trash crew.
During Wednesday’s trash pickup, operator Brent Olmstead, 32, used a joystick to control a mechanical arm that picks up garbage bins and unloads their contents into his truck — which shakes as though in an earthquake throughout the process.
A small black-and-white video monitor in the cab displays the truck’s hopper and the trash falling from the can. The camera mounted in the hopper feeding to the cab allows operators to keep an eye on what exactly is going into the truck.
“It lets us see if things that shouldn’t be are going into the truck,” Olmstead said.
Automation and other technological advances also have reached other parts of the city’s equipment used to keep the community clean.
Operators of the city’s street sweepers no longer have to wear masks to keep their faces safe from dust and debris older sweepers once kicked into their cabs, according Aubol.
Air conditioning is another appreciated development among the machine’s features.
Even with advances in equipment that can require a little more technical know-how, the core of both jobs remains the same: complete the task as efficiently as possible.
Learning how to run the mechanisms of the garbage truck is one of the easier parts of training, according to Olmstead, who has been an equipment operator for the better part of his six-year career with the city.
“Learning the routes is the hardest part,” he said.
Each residential route can contain around 800 garbage cans in need of emptying.
“Usually people will go out and fail at least once,” Olmstead said of new drivers overlooking a can or two. “But you can bet they won’t miss that can again.”
While Olmstead collect trash on the city’s far south end, street-sweeper operator Brian Gourneau removed garbage and other debris from the city’s gutters.
Wednesday’s route took him through neighborhoods north of DeMers Avenue. During the summer months, Gourneau and other crew members can sweep for a couple hours before they need to unload their machine’s hopper.
During the spring and fall, when dead leaves are plentiful, the sweeper travels only two blocks or so before needing to empty its hopper.
Along for the ride each day and perched in front of the panel of buttons controlling the sweeper’s various parts is Gourneau’s companion, a small chicken toy. A former employee nicknamed “Big T” found the Easter trinket on a route one day and placed in the sweeper four years ago.
“He put it there and I haven’t moved it,” Gourneau said, chuckling. “I always know which one is mine.”
Evolving technology and automation may assist the operators in completing tasks, but cooperation from residents seems to have an even greater impact on the crews’ efficiency.
For instance, grass clippings lining a gutter Wednesday along North 11th Street in Grand Forks didn’t look like much to the passing motorist.
To Gourneau, who has operated sweepers for five years, the clippings represented a headache.
“This here is hard to pick up,” he said as he maneuvered the sweeper over the piles. A second pass at 4 mph — a slight decrease from the sweeper’s usual cruising speed of 6 mph — was required for the machine’s brooms to catch it all.
The city asks lawn clippings, branches and other yard waste are placed in a bin separate from garbage, which is collected in a special truck by sanitation workers.
Cameras in normal garbage trucks allow those drivers to see if grass clippings and the like have been mixed in with trash.
“It lets us see if there is yard waste in there,” Olmstead said. “If there is, we’ll stop and tag them.”
The tags are a slip of paper asking residents to correct a problem such as yard waste in their trash, an overflowing garbage can or overgrown brush in alley.
Another daily obstacle for the city’s four street sweepers is cars left on the street. On Wednesday, Gourneau wove in between cars parked along his north-end route.
The zigzagging brings down the quality of a sweep, according to Gourneau.
“People call in because it looks like their streets don’t get swept, but what can you do?” he said of the predicament as he rounded another parked car.