By Jeff Falk • Photo Courtesy of Penn Dot
Operating a snow plow is one of those jobs. You know the kind. It’s one of those jobs that no one really wants to do, but that someone has to.
Sure, it might be a thankless undertaking, one that sometimes meets with unfair scrutiny or unwarranted criticism. It’s a task we may take for granted.
But if you really think about, it’s a job that allows us to live the type of lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to.
Piloting a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (Penn Dot) maintenance vehicle is so much more than some burly guy sitting behind the wheel of a big truck. The operators are highly—trained specialists—experts, if you will – performing difficult tasks in the worst possible conditions, with a lot to concern themselves with.
They make it possible for you and I to go home. And all they’re really looking for is the same consideration in return.
“They’re basically people who live in our community,” says Dave Thompson, Penn Dot’s District Eight Press Officer. “I would call them the unsung heroes of Penn Dot. We are talking about people who are out in all hours of the day and night, holidays, in the worst conditions. You know how crappy some of our Pennsylvania winters can be.
“When the going gets tough, these guys get going,” adds Thompson. “They keep things going when things are at their worst, weather-wise. They’re really a dedicated group. I know some of them personally. They’re ordinary people, but they do extraordinary things.”
District Eight is one of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s 11 districts and is made up of the counties of Dauphin, Cumberland, Franklin , Adams, Lancaster, Lebanon, Perry and York Counties. It is home to 5,230 miles of roadways.
At some 40,000 total miles, Pennsylvania boasts one of the largest road networks in the state.
“I would say that we try to maintain a complement of winter service operators to keep the roads safe and passable,” says Thompson. “Penn Dot does not have a bare-roads policy. During a snowstorm, the job is however long it takes to complete the route. Motorists are going to encounter snow. We try to balance the amount of funding with the safety of the motoring public. Our number-one priority is to keep the roads good, safe and passable.
“Our first priorities are interstates and expressways,” Thompson adds. “Then we’ll do the less traveled state roads, and then the secondary roads. We try to treat the interstates and expressways every two hours. If it’s a heavy snow storm, we’ll divert resources to interstates and expressways from smaller, less traveled roadways.”
In Dauphin County alone, Penn Dot employees 60 full-time winter maintenance operators, 21 temporary, seasonal drivers, and six mechanics. Penn Dot supports the team with eight stock piles of winter maintenance materials, ten loaders, two graders, and 42 plow trucks. Further proof that any job can be accomplished with the right tools.
“These folks are very dedicated,” says Thompson. “I imagine there’s a sense of accomplishment when the job is through. They’re out there during storms and after storms, completing the clean-up operation. It’s just about keeping traffic moving. That said, during extreme weather Penn Dot advises against any unnecessary travel.
“I would say we do recommend against unnecessary travel,” adds Thompson. “I’m sure there are people who still do. That way our people can do their jobs.”
All Penn Dot winter maintenance operators possess CDL driver licenses and a clean driving record, and following an application process, they’re trained in the science of operating a snow plow. They’re also prepared and seasoned, because sometimes experience is the best teacher.
“All of our operators are trained,” says Thompson. “They do dry runs to familiarize themselves with their routes. You’ve got to be certified to operate a snow plow. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. It’s a huge vehicle. There are a lot of blind spots. The world looks different in a snow plow than it does from the seat of a car.
“They’re very large pieces of equipment. Certainly, there are a lot of challenges. Roads are slick, visibility is limited and you’ve got to look out for other motorists. Put that all together and you’re looking at a pretty tough job. There are a lot of things going on in these storm events that these operators have to be aware of.”
These demanding jobs can be taxing, and ultimately the long hours can take their toll on an operator’s stamina. The severity and duration of winter events can demand team work and flexibility.
“With our drivers, we don’t expect them to be out there 24 hours a day,” says Thompson. “They work in shifts. . .dual shifts where they’re relieving each other. When the roads are clear, their jobs are done.
“With our permanent operators, they’re doing other maintenance activities during the summer months—things like paving, seal coating and shoulder work,” adds Thompson. “But the reason we’re here is to keep roads safe and passable over the winter months. Winter services are a top priority for us, keeping the roads open so emergency responders can get to other places.”
Penn Dot keeps a close watch on weather forecasts and road conditions throughout the winter months. A pound of preparation is always worth an ounce of cure.
“I think these folks, especially the experienced ones, have their routes down pat,” says Thompson. “We monitor the weather conditions. Once it looks like a storm is going to happen, we might treat the roads with salt brine. It inhibits snow and ice from forming on roadways. If we know a storm is brewing, we’ll have crews ready to go when the snow starts flying.
“We start getting ready for winter long before it starts,” Thompson adds. “Just making sure our trucks are working, maintained and ready to go. We make sure we have plenty of materials.”
Penn Dot winter maintenance operators make the nature of Pennsylvania’s seasonal weather manageable. But winter storms can sometimes take unpredictable turns, and no two are alike.
“Every winter has its challenges,” says Thompson. “No winter is the same. Sometimes we get heavy snows, but sometimes during less snowy winters, we have more nuisance storms and it requires our operators being out there just as much.
“I guess the message would be that maintenance folks have a very difficult job,” concludes Thompson. “People should slow down, back off and give them plenty of room to operate, so they can get home to their families. They shouldn’t pass them or tailgate. We want everyone to get home safely. There are also things motorists can do to keep themselves safe. But it’s very important that the traveling public give the operators room to do their work.”
Penn Dot has set up a website to help motorists better manage winter road conditions, and it can be found at https://www.511pa.com/.