Icy roads, serious accidents cause concern

By Marianne Apfelbaum and Ben Moger-Williams

The town could adjust its policy on winter road maintenance alerts, following a spate of icy days and two serious accidents.

The latest accident involved Williston resident Kaitlyn George, 51, who is in critical condition with head and chest injuries at Fletcher Allen Health Care. George was driving northbound on Oak Hill Road at approximately 4:20 p.m. on Sunday when she lost control of her vehicle, which went off the left side of the road, police said. George was pinned under the vehicle, according to police, and was pulled from beneath it by passersby, who also alerted police to the accident.

Williston police Sgt. Bart Chamberlain said that speed and alcohol did not appear to be factors in the accident, but did note that the roads were icy and snow covered, and had not been cleared.

On the evening of Nov. 22, snowy and icy roads also caused problems in responding to a plane crash on Partridge Hill, police say. According to police, fire trucks were not able to get up snow-covered Partridge Hill Road. Fire and rescue personnel had to reach the scene on foot, and were able to put out the crash’s ensuing fire with a fire extinguisher.

Williston police acknowledged that the problem of hazardous winter road conditions is a longstanding one. “We are aware that this has been a concern of residents for the past few winters, and we have informed the town,” said Chamberlain. “We recently met with Neil Boyden and Rick McGuire again to come up with a solution.”

Boyden, director of public works for the town, said that during weekends and off-hours, Essex police are supposed to alert the Williston Public Works Department to dangerous road conditions. Essex and State Police also act respectively as dispatchers for Williston Fire and Police Departments on nights and weekends. Williston has two shifts of police dispatchers but no fire dispatchers.

McGuire, Williston’s town manager, said he meets with other town departments periodically to discuss many issues including winter road maintenance.

“This is one of the areas that we’re particularly focusing on,” McGuire said. “We think that our response can be better so we’re going to be looking at a number of different ways of improving it.”

Chamberlain said the roads were so bad on Sunday that officers had to use a town-owned 4-wheel-drive truck to respond to accident calls instead of the police cruisers. “We couldn’t get around with them,” Chamberlain said.

Williston police called Vermont State Police on Sunday morning asking them to get the town to clear the roads, Chamberlain said. The town’s road crew normally works Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. When a need for road clearing arises outside those hours, the procedure is as follows: Requests are funneled through the State Police, then on to the Essex Police Department – which is responsible for calling Williston Public Works to alert them to the need for road clearing, Chamberlain said.

According to State Police, two calls were made directly to Williston’s road crew foreman Sunday morning, neither of which received a response. There is a list of several other road crewmembers who can be called, but those calls were not made, according to Chamberlain.

The administrator for the State Police Williston Communications Center, Jim Cronan, said the center has lists of town highway personnel in five counties to call, so keeping track of calls is difficult on stormy days like Sunday.

“Basically it’s just a scramble,” Cronan said. “In a snowstorm it’s just survival time for us.”

Cronan said he did not know of any problems with communication on Sunday with Williston.

Boyden acknowledged that the State Police had paged foreman Ron Burritt on Sunday, but said Burritt did not receive the page.

“What they should have been doing, is if you don’t get a response, you go down the list,” Boyden said.

The department did receive a call at about 3:45 p.m. Sunday, Boyden said, and the road crews were out by 4:30 p.m.

Boyden said he would make some modifications to the town’s current policy and was preparing to send out a memo to Williston, Essex and State Police this week. Boyden said the memo would advise the departments if they did not get a response 15 minutes after paging the highway foreman, they should begin calling each of the town’s plow truck drivers until one responds.