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A day in the life of a snowplow operator


Zhaia Mergen
Read Iowa DOT Information Specialist Zhaia Mergen's blog about her observations while riding along with a snowplow operator based out of Central Iowa on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010.
 

01/06/2010

8:31 PM

Ed asked: My younger daughter Hannah wants to know how big the cab of the snow plow is.

Perhaps you could describe it compared to a car.

Response to Ed: Excellent question. It's similar to a large pick-up truck. Nothing fancy. But lots of levers and buttons.

8:29 PM

I'm back at the shop now. Safe and sound. Tim is an excellent driver. If you see him during the next storm clearing the roads in and around the eastmixmaster, please give him the room he needs, he's out there working for you. As are all of the Iowa DOT snowplow operators.

Job well done, Tim. Job well done.

8:26 PM

Just passed the I-80 EB to I-235 ramp and Tim noticed a car that slid off the ramp. He said that a lot of people don't know that you should stay on the high side of the curve, if you are on the low side, you'll automatically slide right off the road.

8:24 PM

We are heading in. At the end of Tim's shift he'll fill up with fuel for the next guy. When he gets to the shop around 10:30 he'll check over the truck and fix anything, such as a headlight, if it is out. If the blades on the plow are worn down, he'll replace those.

"It's kind of a courtesy thing, you know. Leave the truck the way you got it for the next guy," said Tim.

The next guy to drive this truck will be able to leave right at the start of his shift.

8:17 PM

The winds are picking up out here. Some ramps are getting slick.

8:08 PM

As I stated before, it is really too cold to be laying down material. But in some places, it is necessary, like the I-80 EB entrance ramp at E. 14th street. Tim hauls material (salt/sand mix) to have on hand to use, but more importantly to help weigh down the vehicle so it doesn't slip around, especially when he is turning around to go back and do another strectch of his route. Unfortunately when this is all done he will have material frozen in the back of his truck that will need to be removed, which is hard work.

8:00 PM

Cher asked: How many gallons of fuel does your truck tank hold and how many times do you stop for fuel on a 12-hour shift?

Tim, thanks for keeping our roads safe and having an abundance of patience with motorist invading your space!

Response to Cher: This tank holds 65 gallons. If Tim starts with a full tank he will fill up once during the shift and then one more time right before shift change to leave the next driver with a full tank.

7:55 PM

We're about to help out another operator by laying down some material on a ramp that he plowed, he noticed it was slick, NB E. 14th Street to EB I-80 entrance ramp.

7:51 PM

Tina asked: Where is your blind spot; the place where you can't see a car as it attempting to pass you?

Response to Tina: In addition to the standard blind spots shown on this diagram, when Tim is plowing snow on a ramp and coming onto a new roadway, the snow being kicked up from the plow will create a white-out condition for him. During these conditions, it's almost impossible to see vehicles around the truck even with the mirrors.

7:42 PM

We are coming up on another plow working on the inside shoulder of WB I-80 east of the east mixmaster. Tim has to watch traffic and find an opportunity to pass that truck. They like to allow a minimum of a quarter mile, but preferably a half mile so that traffic isn't bottle necked into one or two lanes between them.

7:40 PM

The wind has picked up but it isn't moving as much snow off the road as it was earlier. More for Tim to plow. When traffic slows down sometimes he can really get a ramp cleared off by slowing down and manuevering the front plow back and forth to cover more surface.

7:32 PM

There is a lot of traffic behind us that wants to pass us, as the truck is giving them a white out. Tim wants to remove the snow from the dashed white lines between the two lanes of traffic so he can give them something to see, but right now traffic isn't allowing him to do that.

7:30 PM

Chris asked: 1) This blog is the best way to be in the plow operators shoes. Thank you for doing this Zhaia.

2) I have a LOT of respect for all plow operators. They risk their life in the winter to make sure we can travel safe. So thank you Tim!!!!

3) That being said, what would the process be if I had an interest in becoming a plow operator? Any special qualifications?

Response to Chris: You must be at least 18 years of age and have a Class A commercial driver's license. Tim says you would also need to be prepared to work a lot of overtime hours during the winter months.

7:30 PM

Earlier the roads were staying pretty clear, as Tim circled around his route he had enough to plow, but it was too much. With the increase in snowfall the roads are getting packed down with snow. Right now as we head east on I-80 towards the bypass the roads are difficult to see with the winds picking up. Add a few 18-wheelers and we have snow clouds.

7:23 PM

Burt asked: Tim works at the crossroads of America where there is a lot of truck traffic. What is unique about plowing around large trucks?

Response to Burt: The big trucks mainly go around us since we are going slower, so we get the same white-out conditions from the snow being kicked up from the trucks as those who are driving in a passenger car. They go a lot faster than we do.

7:21 PM

Susan asked: Are there very many women snowplow operators?

Response to Susan: "No there aren't." There was one out of the Des Moines north garage, where Tim is stationed out of, but she transferred to the Carlisle shop.

7:17 PM

Tim has been working the eastmixmaster 10 out of the 11 years he has been with the DOT. He knows the roads he plows well. When the snow is coming down it doesn't matter how well he knows the road, he can't always see the familiar road surface. But, by experience, he watches the plow and can tell whether or not he is close to driving off the road by how much the plow teeters back-and-forth.

He showed this to me, it's pretty cool.

7:14 PM

Frank asked: I have a lot of respect for snowplow operators. It has to be a very tough job. Do you find it a stressful job?

Response to Frank: Tim says, "It gets a little stressful around rush hour. You want to do your job being as safe as possible. Sometimes you gotta drive defensively. We'll have 200-250 thousand motorists come through that [east]mixmaster in a day. Whether you are doing snow or mowing grass, it's busy."

7:10 PM

Bob asked: What kind of training do snowplow operators receive?

Response to Bob: The DOT provides classroom training, as well as, simulator and behind-the-wheel training for the snowplow operators.

7:06 PM

As Tim circles his route, going over the same roads and ramps, he is aware of his surroundings, controling his plow, pushing buttons that control something on this monster machine. He is a multi-tasker that doesn't stop until his shift is over. He works hard clearing these roads for me, my husband, his wife, our parents, and all of the rest of you out there trying to get home, to work, to school.

Thank you Tim.

7:02 PM

One thing Tim has explained to me as that he gets a lot of drivers who make gestures (negative) at him. In some instances he suspects that they think he should be in the left lane when he is in the right lane. But what drivers may not realize is that there may be a snlowplow in that left lane up ahead or a little ways back plowing that lane.

Tim feels that in the winter time the public sees them [maintenance workers] as in the way and in the summer they [maintenance operators] aren't doing enough.

6:46 PM

The snow fall has picked up. I checked the radar and it looks like we had a bit of a break. That must have been around the time Tim asked me, "Is it even snowing out there?" Well, it's snowing now.

6:45 PM

Jana asked: Do snowplows ever get stuck in the snow? Does it ever get so bad that a snowplow can't plow the roads?

Response to Jana: Tim says, "Oh yeah. It's usually when we get off the shoulder and the snow is real wet, we'll get stuck." He points out the dilenators along the side of the shoulder and informs me that if he gets out there too far he could get stuck.

Tim has never experienced having to be pulled off the road because it gets so bad. Usually when plows are pulled off and can't plow it is because the visibility is poor. According to Tim, sometimes the roads will get so bad that they will do what is called a push, where several trucks will line up accross the lanes, staggered. The first truck will do the inside lane and the next truck will be set back a little and one lane to the right, and so on. They will push the snow off all lanes at one time. This is pretty rare in Tim's experience, it would have to be a lot of snow fall. Like in Western Iowa during this last winter storm where they got 20+ inches.

6:44 PM

While we are stopped Tim is checking all of the lights and his wipers. He is breaking up any chunks of snow and ice and wiping things clean to prepare to go back out on the road.

6:43 PM

We have stopped for fuel. Surprisingly there are not a lot of trucks here. Tim said that sometimes the roads are so bad and a lot of trucks will pull off to wait out the storm. When that happens Tim has had trouble getting to the gas pump to fuel up.

6:34 PM

As Tim drives onto city streets to turn around and head in a different direction, he mentions that he always has to watch the vehicle approaching the intersection as he drives through to make sure they aren't going to t-bone the truck. As stated earlier, not sure there is much he can do about that.

6:28 PM

Trucks, along with the rest of the traffic are taking it slow. Tim has seen a few trucks with the double trailers in tow and informed me that sometimes they will get stuck on the entrance ramps at E. 14th Street.

6:19 PM

6:17 PM

Snowmobilers just passed in front of us on Corporate Woods Drive, headed west. They are on the sidewalk...I don't think they are supposed to be doing that.

6:15 PM

Taking the ramp from WB I-80 to NB I-35. The speed of the drivers has blown the snow off of the driving surface, but only slightly, leaving it along side the ramp for Tim to plow.

6:11 PM

As we drive the entrance ramp to get on I-80 WB at the bypass (US 65) interchange, there are still a lot of drivers heading out of DSM, EB on I-80, the interstate is littered with the glow of headlights.

6:07 PM

As we turn around to head back towards the east mixmaster on I-80 WB, we see an accident right outside of Menards on Hubbell (U.S. 65). Police car with lights flashing to warn drivers. No one in the cars, they must have been picked up already.

5:49 PM

Gary asked: Word was that a snowplow and semi got into an accident on I-80 this afternoon. How worried are the drivers about getting hit by sliding motorists?

Response to Gary: Tim worries, but not too much, he keeps an eye on who passing him, he can easily tell between a car and an 18-wheeler. If he sees a truck fishtailing he can only pull over so far and there isn't much he can do to avoid it. Tim hasn't ever been hit, but he's seen a lot of cars and trucks collide over the years.

5:49 PM

As we take the I-235 to I-35 NB ramp we look over and see the I-235 to I-80 EB ramp. Tim mentions that earlier that ramp was clear and now it is snowpacked. Drivers were going slow as we passed.

5:43 PM

As we drive this route I am watching Tim and he is always looking out each of his mirrors. He pays special attention to cars entering the roadway that he is on to ensure safety.

5:40 PM

Heading WB on I-235 leaving the eastmixaster, traffic heading out of downtown DSM on I-235 EB is a little backed up near the east mixmaster. Drivers need to use caution and take it slow.

5:36 PM

Vehicle with no lights on. Not sure what they are thinking.

5:22 PM

Traffic on I-80 WB at the east mixmaster is moving now, but slowly.

5:20 PM

As we drive NB on I-35 headed towards Ankeny Tim explains that the far righthand lane has snow packed down and as he pushes the snow with his front blade he will move it from side to side to help clear the packed down material. So, not only do drivers need to use caution when driving by a snowplow due to the front plow being wider than the truck, but the plow may also be moving.

5:12 PM

As Tim clears the snow that is covering the dashed lines between the two inside (left) lanes, we are creating a snow cloud.

Drivers should use caution when approaching a snow cloud as they cannot see what it is hiding.