Maneuvering robotic garbage trucks is a daily adventure
by Dale Short
Feb 09, 2014 | 3477 views | 0 0 comments | 54 54 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Shawn Kosmus and Frank Fountain end their shift alongside a Heil side-lift garbage collection truck. Daily Mountain Eagle - Dale Short
Shawn Kosmus and Frank Fountain end their shift alongside a Heil side-lift garbage collection truck. Daily Mountain Eagle - Dale Short
What’s 10 feet tall, 20 feet long, makes a loud slamming noise, and is a favorite front-yard entertainment for kids far and wide?

Jasper’s automated garbage collection trucks have an almost science-fiction quality as they rumble along the streets with their robotic yellow arms snatching up containers and launching their contents overhead into huge bins.

Drivers Frank Fountain and Shawn Kosmus say that getting the big vehicles from Point A to Point B each day is a lot trickier than the old-fashioned method of workers emptying metal garbage cans into dump trucks by hand, but the efficiency factor more than makes up for it.

“It can be hard,” says Kosmus. “The biggest complication is people putting their containers too close to a mailbox, or too close to a car.” The trucks’ arms have a certain range they need for reaching out, and rather than damaging something the drivers have to leave the garbage uncollected and wait for the resident to call in.

To automobile drivers who have difficulties with parallel parking, the ballet of maneuvering the big arm’s clamp onto a dark green object only a couple of feet wide at the base might seem like a nightmare. “I trained with the foreman a while before they let me go out on my own,” says Fountain, who’s been with the Sanitation Department for five and a half years. “It takes some time to really get the hang of it.”

Fountain is a transplanted Northerner who was driving a truck for a construction company in Georgia when he found out from a co-worker, who was a Jasper native, about the Sanitation job. He now lives between Carbon Hill and Nauvoo; Kosmus is a resident of Parrish.

Another challenge, the two say, are containers being packed too tightly with garbage or trash to empty properly. “Last week on my route,” says Fountain, “there was a man who had filled his container with insulation material, and it froze to the sides and wouldn’t come out. Sometimes people ask us, ‘Can you slam it real hard a few times?’

“But that’s a misconception. The arm won’t shake, it just goes up and goes down. The stuff falls out by the force of gravity. So the gentleman had to come out and loosen up all the pink stuff, and then when I dumped it, it came out.”

The weekly launch of containers into the air and slamming them back to earth causes some wear and tear, Kosmus says, but the cans can be surprisingly resilient. “A lot of it depends on weather conditions. When there’s a hard freeze, like last week, the containers are a lot more likely to crack when the arms squeeze them. But we’ve got some cans that have been in use since 2009 and are still going strong.”

If the truck reminds some youngsters — and the not so young — of a giant PacMan, it’s no accident. The video game illusion continues inside the cab: the lifting arm is controlled by an oversized joystick, and a video screen on the dashboard lets the driver keep an eye on how the bin is filling up.

Running routes in the downtown area is more complicated because there’s more traffic, Fountain says. “Out on the backroads, it’s a lot easier. And people are less likely to park too near their cans.”

The city has six of the side-arm trucks for residential pickup, and three end-loaders for servicing dumpsters. The truck bins are large enough that they don’t usually reach capacity on a single day’s route — except after holidays, says Fountain. When that happens, they can call for another truck to take up the slack.

Incidentally, the vehicles don’t dump at the city’s landfill but at a Browning-Ferris Industries site in Sumiton, about 15 miles to the east down Old Highway 78. That’s because the two sites are totally different types, according to superintendent of sanitation Jon Geddings. Jasper’s landfill is what’s known in the industry as a “C & D” facility, for “construction and demolition” materials, while the BFI site is classified as Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and contains a composite liner that prevents dumped materials from leaching into the soil.

Besides the video monitor, the creature comforts of the cab include heating and air conditioning — but only to a point, according to Kosmus and Fountain. “The heaters work great,” Fountain says with a laugh. “The air-conditioning, not quite so much.”

The AM-FM radio comes in handy once a driver learns his route well enough that he can run it on mental autopilot. The two men’s listening tastes diverge — Kosmus tends toward sports talk radio, while Fountain prefers classic rock.

The most frequent interruptions to their train of thought come from cans filled with foam packing peanuts or paper that’s been shredded, both of which can scatter to the winds when the can is hoisted to the heights of the bin edge.

“The two things people could do to help us out the most,” Kosmus says, “are to use garbage bags, and to make sure the containers are a safe distance away from cars, mailboxes or any other obstacles. Not only does it let us do our job better, it saves money for the city.”

Of all the city’s services, Geddings says, sanitation is probably the most invisible — until something goes wrong. “It’s hard to believe,” he says, “but around 60 tons of garbage a day leaves the city. Making that happen is the job of six very dedicated people — three of them work nights, three work days.

“If all those six guys got sick at once, they could probably shut us down in a week. They do a great job, and they make the city a better place.”

Dale Short’s e-mail address is