When you think of government or public service, do you think of a white-domed building in Washington, DC, or Olympia? Or maybe your local government office, regional park, or nearest health clinic? The words “public service in action” make me think of blue crystals on a sidewalk. Here’s why.
On a recent morning, after navigating the icy, snow-dusted streets in my neighborhood to get to work, I arrived to find sidewalks near the Chinook building in downtown Seattle covered in sparkly, blue, deicer crystals, making it safe for the hundreds of employees and residents who scurried inside, or to and from nearby bus stops, buildings, and other downtown destinations.
Having spent a few weeks on crutches earlier this year, I was immediately thankful for the safe walkway in cold, potentially slippery conditions. I was also curious: who had been up early doing this for employees?
It turns out the Facilities Management Division (FMD) in the Department of Executive Services (DES) has two small but efficient teams of employees – one for the northern half of the county, one for the south – who handle tasks like deicing sidewalks for almost all of the more than 100 county work sites spread across the 2,200 square miles of King County.
Edgar Pastores, a 14-year county employee, explained the work that he and co-workers on Supervisor Teia Tuifua’s team do, which on that day began just before 4 a.m.
“We wanted to get the crystals down early so they’d have time to work before people started coming in, but the weather forecast said it might rain too, and that would wash them away,” he explained. “So I was watching the news, checking the conditions, and loading up a county truck that the Motor Pool staff had put a deicer spreader on. We share it among the trades: when it snows, they can put a plow on. The rest of the year, the plumbers and carpenters use it because it has a supply box where they can put their tools.”
That day, three members of the five-person team loaded more than a dozen 50-pound bags of deicer and covered sidewalks around the Yesler building, north along Jefferson and James streets, and along Third, Fourth, and Fifth Avenues. The rest of the team took the remaining deicer and headed for the district courts in Shoreline, Issaquah, Redmond, and Eastgate to make sure court staff and customers could safely reach the halls of justice.
A four-person team working from the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent did the same for county worksites south down to Federal Way, while a separate team handled the Youth Services Center in Seattle’s Central Area.
Pastores explained that the process for keeping winter sidewalks clear around county buildings actually begins in the fall.
“Before it gets cold, it rains,” he said. “So we clear leaves around the buildings in the fall so that they don’t make sidewalks slippery or clog storm drains. That way the water can flow. If we don’t, it can cause clogs, flooding, and frozen or broken pipes once the temperature drops.”
The crews’ jobs varies daily, from landscaping and deicing, to filling parking lot potholes at the animal shelter in Kent, to doing the heavy lifting and coordination of office moves across the county. Doing it successfully requires both physical strength and multiple competencies, including planning, time-management, problem solving, customer focus, organization, creativity, interpersonal savvy, and being action-oriented.
“Supervisors and leads have to know who is available, which equipment will be needed where, and what the commute times are like between sites for planning the day’s jobs,” said Pastores. “That means adjusting workloads and schedules if anyone is out sick, and figuring out how to get all of our work done so that other employees are able to get their work done.”
The team’s approach perfectly captures the “good colleague care” aspect of the county’s customer service focus, which means providing good service to co-workers, as well as the public.
Pastores sees the job’s variety and the teamwork involved as a plus.
“I believe that your attitude affects those around you,” he said. “I enjoy the people I work with and wake up happy and appreciative to be able to work and be so busy that the day goes by fast.”
“Fast, proactive, and thorough” could be the motto of these teams of public employees. So the next time you think of public service, I hope you think of blue deicer crystals making the sidewalks around county buildings safe, and the team at the Facilities Management Division at DES who are up early and on the job, so that you can be too. I know I will.