HMC Services Inc.: Establishing a Roadmap for Comprehensive Highway Management

Between December 2010 and February 2011 British Columbia experienced its most challenging winter in recent history. A frigid but fairly snowless beginning to the season was followed by massive snowfall a few months later, creating what some have described as “the perfect storm.”

Additionally, these cold conditions coupled with sparse snowfall early in the season created a weak snowpack prone to caving in and giving way to avalanches, as the base layer is loose and brittle (not hardened by the combined effect of warmer temperatures and heavier snow) and is unable to support snowfall that hits later in the season.

And, indeed, late snow (in early 2011) brought havoc to the Kicking Horse Canyon corridor, a service area managed by HMC Services and its subcontractor AvaTerra Services Inc., a specialist in avalanche hazard assessment and control. Despite extreme conditions, the two experienced companies were able to partner effectively to open the corridor two days after avalanches blanketed the canyon and shut down its roads, showcasing once again their expertise in providing cost-effective, responsive, environmentally conscious and proactive risk management and highway maintenance services.

Safe Travels

Founded in 1996, HMC Services is contracted by the BC Ministry of Transportation to provide road maintenance in the interior of British Columbia – the Selkirk and North Caribou Service Areas (Areas 12 and 18) – and subsequently divides its efforts among simultaneous contracts while additionally providing ongoing service under a 25-year P3 contract for the Kicking Horse Canyon Highway Improvement Project, awarded to HMC in 2005. The P3 Project involves the widening of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway. This section of road was initially laid down as a basic thoroughfare – one lane in both directions – and is now being doubled in size, to a total of four lanes (two in both directions).

Given difficult and challenging terrain, HMC relies on a team of up to 200 people and a massive fleet of equipment to facilitate its continuous year-long operations to keep roads safe and passable. Understandably, the company’s efforts spike during the harsh winter months in both the scenic mountain ranges in the lower eastern area of the Province and across the interior plateau in central British Columbia, where snow and winter weather threatens to impede road travel.

In addition to the clearing of highways due to avalanches and rock slides and dealing with winter weather conditions, HMC spends its time patrolling roadways, inspecting and detecting deficiencies and then establishing and carrying out a progressive plan to correct and improve the infrastructure.

HMC is under the guidance of president and general manager Joe Wrobel, who stepped up to the position in 2004, with an array of experience throughout British Columbia. Wrobel began his career in groundwater consulting, moved on to geotechnical and rock-work with the Ministry of Transportation, switched from field engineer to district highway manager along the way and eventually became a regional manager of maintenance operations. Wrobel left the Ministry of Transportation in 1988 – the year the government began contracting out highway maintenance to private contractors – to manage service areas from the private sector.

Evolving Snow Control

Just as road travel has grown tremendously in the last half century, road maintenance operations are continually evolving – becoming more efficient and utilizing bigger and better technology and techniques – and HMC makes sure to stay on top of the growing body of industry knowledge and cutting-edge changes.

HMC belongs to the BC Road Builders and Heavy Construction Association – where Wrobel is a past chair – the Canadian Construction Association and the World Road Congress.

HMC is proactive and stays one step ahead of road terrors such as black ice with road temperature sensors equipped in its patrol vehicles. Along with patrol vehicles, HMC has 50-some plow/sand trucks plus assorted pickup trucks, graders and loaders. Yet a capable ground fleet doesn’t make the job easy. Mother Nature can humble the toughest of machinery, quickly, and human perseverance is a must.

Wrobel openly recognizes the challenges of recent British Columbia winters when it comes to keeping roads passable due to a series of avalanches that struck the Trans-Canada Highway in the canyon. “Heavy, heavy snowfall created high-risk avalanche conditions over a short period of time. We had to close the highway,” Wrobel recalls. “Our flights through the canyon for observation and control work were limited by weather. Even when we can fly we have to be careful not to bring down a rockslide at the same time we are trying to bring down snow.”

“We were working as many hours as we could on avalanche clean-up and moving the snow as quickly as we could,” Wrobel continues. “The work required extreme amounts of coordination of crew, equipment, subcontractors and traffic management.” Indeed, the HMC crew had to power through five days, shouldering aggressive overtime shifts that for some involved working around the clock.

Perfecting a Partnership

High-risk conditions require experts like HMC and partner AvaTerra to utilize the most advanced techniques. Phil Hein and Jim Bay formed AvaTerra in early 2005, originally to capture a large contract with Canadian Pacific Railway, during which time the opportunity to foray into roadwork with HMC arose and was seized upon.

AvaTerra, based out of Golden and Revelstoke, British Columbia, relies on a human monitoring system, informed by, among other things, Bay's long experience with avalanche safety courses and the transportation sector paired with Hein's substantial experience as a mountain and ski guide throughout the backcountry. Both worked together as heli-ski guides, certified through the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) and Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA), prior to a transition into avalanche course development, risk review and explosive control services for mining, forestry, utility and government sectors.

AvaTerra's Level-2 certified avalanche technicians and practitioners conduct surveys to detect unstable snow through remote weather stations at different elevations in the canyon, watching the snowpack crowded along the highways, and executing sweeping terrain surveys by helicopter. Additionally, AvaTerra consults on Avalanche Safety Planning.

And, when avalanche danger is imminent, AvaTerra dispatches its helicopters – in this case to break up snowpack using the Daisybell, a wonder product with a $150,000 price tag. Created in France by Technology Alpine Security (T.A.S.), the Daisybell dangles at the end of a cable strung from the underbelly of a helicopter; once in place (hovering three to five meters above the target area), a technician riding in the helicopter detonates the device, which triggers an oxygen-hydrogen explosion and creates a shock wave that travels through the air, in all directions, and compacts any reachable areas of unstable snow.

The Daisybell is one-of-a-kind, the best-of-the-best in avalanche control, because a shock wave delivered by air is much more effective that one delivered from an explosive device that is dropped into the snow. HMC knows that by partnering with AvaTerra it’s providing the absolute best service in order to meet its goals for the Ministry of Transportation and the entire province of British Columbia.

No matter the challenges brought by difficult terrain and extreme weather, Wrobel explains the key to success: “We work as a team to meet our core values.” These values are to meet all the expectations of the Province in the most efficient way possible – keeping costs down, time to completion rapid, and minding environmental conservation. Dedicated to preventing risk factors from snowballing, both HMC Services Inc. and AvaTerra Services Inc. work to keep highways open, and safe, for the traveling public.