Boston’s Top Snow Man Tames Cold Fury With IPads: A Day’s Work

Dawn breaks cold and ugly at Boston’s sprawling 10-acre public works headquarters as Mike Dennehy, commissioner and unofficial “snow czar,” readies for a quick-moving squall with a bag of high-tech tricks.

Though the storm promises just an inch or two, it will be fought with the tools of a new age. Inside the storm center, Dennehy watches as SnowCOP, an interactive Web application with a mapping system that tracks every piece of equipment in real time, goes live. Feeding data to SnowCOP are smartphones with apps and iPads with apps doled out to scores of city snowplow/salter drivers, inspectors and hired contractors. For the better part of this raw January morning, 120 vehicles will be pinged and poked as they clear the confounding maze that is Boston’s 850 miles of asphalt.

The onboard devices leave tiny markings or “breadcrumbs” on SnowCOP maps to show where trucks have been and how long they’ve been there. The system, made more powerful since its debut in 2011, can detect a driver’s unauthorized coffee break or sneak trip to neighboring Quincy to do a private job on city time.

So just how eager are the ground forces to engage the gadgetry? The Dennehy who shows up for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s cabinet meetings in suit and tie calls it an evolving process that a number of his 410 employees resist. The Dennehy who as a kid got into fistfights at Dorchester’s Hemey Park, where occasionally a baseball game would break out, says they better -- or else. It’s a problem that bedevils managers across the U.S.: keeping the troops tech-savvy even as they fear the technology will one day steal their jobs.

‘Mike D. Math’

Dennehy seems up to the task. At 46, he’s sandy-haired Irish Catholic from the St. Ann’s neighborhood who wanted more than a bartending job on the main thoroughfare, Dot Ave. A father of five, he always had a way with numbers. “Mike D. math” he calls it. And he’s hands-on, just as comfortable managing a plow driver in line at the yard for more salt, or calming the woman on A Street who’s furious about the ticket she got for leaving trash out on the wrong day, or employing social media to connect better with residents.

“What Mike Dennehy does is changing the relationship between government and its people,” Mayor Walsh said.

By 9 o’clock -- four hours after Dennehy met in the storm center with his deputy, Michael Brohel -- the first flakes fall. He heads out in his city-issued Ford Escape to check on the roads.

The white SUV has a two-way radio between the front seats. A compendium of Boston’s roads on 225 separate maps sits on the dashboard near a twin gauge that reads the air and road temperatures: 24 and 18 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively.

First to Freeze

He turns the car toward Beacon Hill, the pricey neighborhood of brownstones nestled around the gold-domed Statehouse.

“The hills are the first place I go,” he says.

Boston has 27. Its roads are first to freeze and last to thaw and so pre-treatment, spreading salt before it snows, is key to staying ahead of trouble, he says.

It also saves money -- something he says he wouldn’t know without Mayor Walsh. The 18-year city employee was ready to leave before Walsh was elected a year ago to succeed the late legendary Tom Menino. He joined city government as a “numbers guy,” he says, rising to senior budget analyst, then assistant superintendent of sanitation. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in business administration at nearby Northeastern University.

He pressed his colleagues, supervisors included, to start using new technology to no avail, he says. “I was at my wit’s end.”

Passwords Expired

Menino doled out smartphones and gave speeches on the benefits of so-called smart-city approaches. The problem, as Dennehy says he discovered when he took the $124,999-a–year commissioner job as an interim, was that a third of the smartphones in public works were stuffed into desk drawers, passwords expired, not so smart after all.

On the other hand, Dennehy says, Walsh is on a mission to employ the devices because ultimately they boost the efficiency of the workforce. The technology, Walsh has said, will do nothing less than transform Boston into “America’s first 21st-century city.”

Never shy about what’s bothering them, Bostonians have always been able to call or e-mail City Hall. The newer option is “Citizens Connect,” an app that allows them to file their beefs digitally and attach a photo of the offending pothole, dead raccoon or unplowed street. Dennehy’s foremen access the complaints through the “City Worker” app. After they clear up the problem, they can snap their own photo, attach it to the complaint and off it goes to the constituent whose attitude toward City Hall, Walsh hopes, will warm.

Fewer Complaints

To see how Dennehy’s techno-centric snow battles were going, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, chief information officer, found a comparable storm before Dennehy ran the show and one after he was in charge. The results: Dennehy had fewer complaints come in from Citizens Connect compared to the earlier storm: 431 versus 854.

Driving up South Boston’s Telegraph Hill, Dennehy checks his electronic tablet: A complaint has come in. A woman says her street has too much salt. “You can’t win,” he says. “Someone will check it out.”

He heads for snow map 743, the neighborhood where he grew up. His mother, a retired nurse, is still there.

Soon he is cruising Dorchester’s Neponset neighborhood of his youth. He’s the middle of three brothers. His older brother, Mark, is the men’s hockey coach at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. Matthew is a corrections officer.

Back to Headquarters

Dennehy talks with pride about the 15 boys -- “not a girl on the street” -- who faced off against baseball teams from other streets. He remembers how the competitive spirit he nurtured helps him today -- and not just with those 18 holes he and his deputy play after work with a large iced coffee, milk no sugar, riding on low score.

“We have to find ways to keep getting better at delivering basic city services,” he says.

By 11 o’clock, the squall has passed, leaving an inch on the ground. Dennehy drives back to headquarters.

Inside a smaller office, behind a computer, sits John Schallmo, 55, a foreman with almost 30 years on the job. When he started, there was no social media, no citizen app to point out problems. Unlike some veterans who’ve resisted, Schallmo says he’s embraced the technology for his own survival.

“Jobs are hard to get,” he says. “Those so-called easy jobs aren’t out there.”

Dennehy gives a wave and leaves. On his way back to City Hall, he says, “John Schallmo is a very good worker and he’s smart. Guys who don’t keep up, city government will pass them by.”