KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A crew of 10 public works employees with the City of Knoxville devote their days to grabbing your attention. Although you see their work on every street in the city, you may not notice their effort.
"On any given corner, you can see 20 signs if you just look around. We maintain them. I think a lot of people, you just drive and take stuff like that for granted," said Danny Huffaker, a crew leader for signs and marking in Knoxville's traffic engineering division.
The signs and marking team makes signs for traffic directions, streets, and high school football championships. The signage is printed printed on reflective adhesive material at the facility on Elm Street.
"It's probably a group that goes unnoticed a lot," said Bryan Gilbert, supervisor of signs and marking systems for Knoxville. "We install and maintain around 50,000 signs throughout the city of Knoxville. We also maintain the pavement markings on a thousand miles of roadway. All the lines on the asphalt, be it for driving lanes or pedestrian crossings are our responsibility."
Gilbert said signs typically last around 10 years before they have to be replaced.
The nature of the work is it goes unnoticed until something goes wrong.
"We have to quickly replace some signs if there is graffiti or it is knocked down. Especially if it's a stop sign. If it's a stop sign, my main objective is to have it back up and functioning in under two hours," said Huffaker. "We also are responsible for all road closures, be it for events or an emergency. We block all the roads for ballgames and marathons. We also close the road when there are floods or fires."
Huffaker has been employed with public works for 27 years. When he's not on the job, his secondary vocation may be a sign of obsession with stripes, signs, and lines.
"I refereed high school and college football games for 35 years. You get older and can't run like you used to. So, now on the weekends during football season, I hold the down marker at the University of Tennessee home games," said Huffaker.
"He runs the chains on the UT home football games. We always like to watch him on TV and see if he gets hit or not," laughed Gilbert.
Huffaker said one memorable spill on the sidelines happened during the second quarter of the Auburn game in 2009.
"I got hit on the sideline and was knocked back into the big fan that keeps the players cool. The referee, of course, called timeout and checked on me. He said, 'Do you not need a minute?' I said, 'I am not going to take a minute in front of 100,000 [people]' and he said, 'Well, actually, it's more like a million. This is on ESPN.' That is the one story the guys still make fun of me," laughed Huffaker.
Huffaker said his side-job on the sidelines gives him "the best seats in the house" for home football games. It also makes him the only member of the signs team who does not have to work game-day traffic at Neyland Stadium.
Whether it's down markers in the stadium or the signs on Neyland Drive, the signs and marking crew is involved in the community and provides everyone with a sense of direction.
It's a job that often goes unnoticed because the crew does it well.
"What we do, it affects our safety every day. The signs and the pavement markings are vital to their safety," said Gilbert.