Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Safety Flock: Plastic flamingos and bird kites help keep our North Cascades Pass clearing crews safe – and entertained

Popular North Cascades Highway reopens on Friday, May 11

By Barbara LaBoe

When you see a plastic flamingo yard ornament or a kite decorated like an eagle, you likely don't think safety. But, for our avalanche and maintenance crews clearing State Route 20, these mascots can be the reason they return home at the end of their shift.

The flamingos and other feathered friends help us during our work to clear popular destinations like the North Cascades Highway, which will reopen Friday, May 11.

It's tough work clearing up to 11 feet of snow from roadways closed for the season – especially given the historic avalanche chutes that make the roads unsafe during the winter months. These known areas of avalanche activity are particularly dangerous and unpredictable and we don't want our crews stopping or parking underneath them.
Floyd (right in hard hat) and his safety flamingo flock help mark dangerous areas for our avalanche and
maintenance crews reopening the North Cascade Highway. The birds' bright pink coloring
standing out against the snow and warn crews about hazardous areas.

The dangers are included in daily safety briefings and training and are marked with traditional signs, but several years back, our avalanche crew wanted another way to reinforce the message. Complacency is a serious risk factor in repetitive, dangerous work so they wanted a new way to catch workers' attention.

"That's how accidents happen," explains Mike Stanford, our North Central Region Avalanche Supervisor. "You've done the same thing a million times before and then one day you don't pay attention."

Enter Floyd the flamingo.

Stanford spied Floyd – in all of his pink, plastic glory – in a store one day and knew this was the answer. Not only does the pink color stand out against the snow, a flamingo suddenly appearing on a mountain pass, covered with snow, certainly gets attention.

Inexpensive and easy to relocate, Floyd also was a low-cost solution to a serious safety hazard. "We try to do the best and safest thing we can at the lowest cost.," Stanford said. The plastic birds are also easy to replace if they were ever buried in an avalanche. (There have been a couple of close calls but, so far, no flamingo has been lost in the line of duty.)

Once crews and the public saw the first flamingo, the questions began. He soon had a name and an entire backstory, including a home base in Louisiana.  At first, Floyd flew solo, but soon members of his extended family also joined the safety crew. A whole flock of pink flamingos – some wearing miniature hard hats and Mardi Gras beads - have been seen during clearing.
Left: This spring an eagle kite was used in place of flamingos, with the coloring and movement a reminder to crews to not stop near it. After the kite string broke, however, it's likely stationary flamingos will return to the job next year. Right: Floyd the flamingo – wearing a mini hard hat – stands at attention near "the annex", a particularly dangerous area near Washington Pass where crews need to avoid stopping or parking.

Floyd's antics were added to the weekly updates on the North Cascades Highway clearing progress and his fame soon reached far beyond Washington state. A couple of the flamingo flock have even been "liberated" by die-hard fans.

This year, however, Floyd took a break. The tale up on SR 20 goes that Floyd had some legal issues back in Louisiana and sent his "distant cousin" an eagle kite in his place. The eagle was also very visible to crews, but he "abandoned" his post in late April when the kite's string broke in strong winds – luckily, after the avalanche chute area was cleared. Given the eagle's dependability issues, crews say to expect the flamingos back on the job in 2019.

In all seriousness, while flamingos and kites are fun, they do serve a serious purpose. We want to reopen roads as soon as possible each spring, but we also need to keep our crews safe in the process. Closely following our safety policy lets us achieve both goals. And, if some of our tools also make the crews smile during a long, dangerous job, that doesn't hurt either.