Last winter, Stephanie Henry was pushing papers across a desk in an office. This winter, she will be pushing tons of snow and ice off the streets as one of Minneapolis’ newest snowplow operators.
Henry and about 50 other new Twin Cities plow operators spent the week behind the wheel, learning how to maneuver massive plow trucks that stretch more than 60 feet long and can weigh 55,000 pounds when loaded with road salt.
Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Ramsey and Hennepin counties have joined forces in the past few years to run their newest plow operators through Snowplow Operations Training, or SPOT. The training, held at the State Fairgrounds in Falcon Heights, can run for up to two weeks and combines classroom work with behind-the-wheel drills.
“This is time in the cab before it snows. Once it snows, it’s pretty stressful,” said St. Paul Street Maintenance Manager Matt Morreim.
Plow operators working for the metro area’s largest two cities and counties plow more than 8,100 lane miles during a typical snow emergency. Hundreds of operators are required, and preparations must start well before the snow flies.
“These guys are tasked with an awesome responsibility,” said Ramsey County Safety Coordinator Scott Jahnke. “They’re moving snow, avoiding obstacles, often while everyone else is sleeping.”
As part of their training this fall, operators — who must have a commercial driver’s license — complete the “roadeo.” It’s a series of obstacle courses of cones and barriers that require plow drivers to steer, swerve, navigate tight turns and back up. When operators master one course, the trainers move the obstacles a bit closer and they go through it again.
“It’s very helpful. You mostly have to focus,” said Henry, sitting in the driver’s seat that resembles a cockpit with its dozens of buttons and gauges. She shifted the plow into reverse and backed up between a series of cones.
“Good job. We will polish that up a bit,” yelled Scott Kelly, Minneapolis Public Works equipment training supervisor.
Said Kelly: “We are trying to create good habits so they are not a hazard out on the roads.”
A critical part of the training is teaching drivers how to inspect their plow trucks before and after their shifts, checking lights, tires and brakes to ensure safe operation.
Before they launched SPOT six years ago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Hennepin and Ramsey counties sent some of their operators to the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s plow operator training near Little Falls.
Not only did that training require overnight stays, it also focused on plowing freeways — dramatically different work from what urban plow operators must do when pushing snow around parked cars, mailboxes, fire hydrants and garbage cans.
Morreim said SPOT training is a lot more comprehensive, improving safety and efficiency. Drivers who are better trained have fewer accidents and save wear and tear on plow trucks that cost upward of $250,000, Jahnke said.
“We are protecting taxpayer dollars by training them right,” he said.
Keeping the training local also eases the strain for operators and their families.
“They already give up a lot,” Jahnke said, noting the holidays and family dinners that plow drivers often miss. “What they sacrifice for their job is commendable.”
Ramsey County plow operator Crystal Moua missed training last year while on maternity leave, but she was in the cab this week maneuvering through the obstacle course. Even though she already had behind-the-wheel plow experience, Moua said the practice is invaluable.
Moua, who has four children, said it’s convenient to train in town. When she’s at training or plowing overnight, she said, her husband handles the kids’ needs.
“He has some chops,” Moua said. “He knows my job is important to the public.”