Weather Updates

First responders this winter ‘exhausted’ and ‘frustrated’

OrlPark police block street where blowing drifting snow forced two vehicles off road Tuesday February 1 2011 108th Avenue OrlPark

Orland Park police block the street where blowing and drifting snow forced two vehicles off the road Tuesday February 1, 2011, on 108th Avenue in Orland Park, Ill. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 3, 2014 2:35PM

We’ve all done our share of whining about the winter, but imagine how difficult January has been for emergency responders in the Fox Valley.

“The wear and tear on our deputies and equipment has been hard,” confirmed Lt. Pat Gengler, when I called the Kane County Sheriff’s Department to check on road conditions earlier this week. “With the snow, wind and cold, it’s been a never-ending cycle … they are pretty battered.”

Det. Scott Koster used the word “exhausted” when he described the Kendall County sheriff’s staff who, from Sunday night to Monday morning, had to rescue about a dozen stranded drivers and take them to warming shelters.

Winter, of course, always brings challenges, most especially in outlying areas. Who can forget the Blizzard of 2011 that left thousands stranded across the Midwest?

But this winter has posed equally dire road conditions, according to both sheriffs’ offices. Making matters worse is the fact these extreme conditions have been so relentless. First responders barely have time to catch their breaths before another storm front is bearing down.

So of course they are tired. But it’s more than physical exhaustion, officials contend.

Deputies and dispatchers on the front line are doing their best to keep up. But they are as stymied by the weather conditions as the drivers who put their cars into ditches or snow banks.

“Coordinating resources is tough,” under these circumstances, said Gengler, adding that at any given time there could be 30 to 40 vehicles in need of help. And that also takes “an emotional toll on these first responders, including the dispatchers” trying to calm stranded motorists who may not be reached until another half dozen calls before them get help.

So it’s understandable the sheriff’s department over the last month has issued so many warnings about travel in western Kane County. Keep off the roads. Don’t go out unless it is an emergency. Leave work before dark. Be prepared to be stranded. Have emergency kit in the car; along with a charged phone and full tank of gas.

Still, people don’t seem to be paying attention. So much so that on Monday, it prompted the sheriff’s department to issue yet one more warning. And this one was a lot more stern, even chastising the public for complaining about the number of warnings going out.

“We cannot be more direct,” the press release read. “Travel in western Kane County is hazardous, at best.”

Kendall County Det. Koster described the way residents, many of whom have no good reason to be out on the roads, are disregarding warnings as both “stunning” and “selfish,” especially if they have no reason to be out on the road.

These first responders, he pointed out, “are not supermen and superwomen.” Yet they are being put in dangerous situations themselves when they respond to drivers who need to be rescued.

That danger was tragically evident in the fiery crash on I-88 east of Eola Road Monday night when a tollway worker was killed and a state trooper was seriously injured after a semi-truck slammed into their vehicles.

Unlike previous generations when people knew that to co-exist with Mother Nature you had to respect her, society today is so used to conveniences and services being done for them, they fail to recognize the dangers, noted John Jaros, executive director of the Aurora Historical Society.

“In the past, people hunkered down in winter,” he said. “Now we expect our roads to be cleared and salt to be laid” so we can go out whenever we feel like it. .. even if it’s just to get a gallon of milk from the store.

Plus, it’s been “a generation since we’ve had a winter like this,” Jaros added. “We’ve had enough mild winters that we think snow and cold are no big deal.”

It’s not just counties struggling to keep up. And bad roads aren’t the only issue.

Broken pipes and fire sprinkler piping has led to an increase in calls to Aurora police and fire departments, as well as calls for ambulances due to road conditions and cold-related health issues, said city spokesman Clayton Muhammad.

“As always, when the temperatures plummet we see people attempt to thaw frozen pipes and also use alternative heating devices which create carbon monoxide issues as well as potential fires,” he added.

Total cost for the winter of 2011, which included that awful blizzard, came to $665,478; compared to $538,187 the city has spent so far on salt, snow removal, police fire, water and sewer maintenance and warming centers.

And we still have a long road ahead.

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