ST. PAUL — Not long ago at all, training snowplow drivers was a somewhat informal affair for both St. Paul Public Works and Ramsey County. Drivers got hired, dumped into their first plow truck and shown the ropes by an instructor until they won a vote of confidence.
Every so often, the county sent someone to Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, to join Minnesota Department of Transportation trainees in an obstacle course-like environment.
That’s where Scott Jahnke, longtime safety coordinator with Ramsey County, and Scott Kelly, training supervisor for Minneapolis Public Works, got to thinking about a better way of prepping their people to tackle the Twin Cities’ notorious snowfalls.
“Before, (training) was individual, one-on-one, and we didn’t get into as much detail with them,” Jahnke said. “We just drove around with them. But we knew we needed to do more.”
That was six years ago. In Year 1 of the ensuing collaboration, Ramsey County and Minneapolis partnered on their own “SPOT” — Snow Plow Operators Training — behind the county Public Works facility in Arden Hills, modeled loosely on the MnDOT SPOT program, but with more of an urban feel.
By Year 2, St. Paul joined. Hennepin County climbed aboard in Year 3.
And now, in Year 5, the training has grown to become a formal, five-day program at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, which on Thursday, Sept. 26, roped in some 50 new plow drivers. About a day and a half is dedicated to classroom instruction.
Much of the time is spent driving around columns of narrowly-spaced orange construction cones, backing up and performing maneuvers that would be hard enough to do in a standard vehicle, like a snake-like “serpentine” curve in reverse. And then it’s off to the streets around the fairgrounds for driving in real-world urban conditions, minus of course, actual snow.
That will come soon enough.
Jahnke said the goal of the four-way collaborative training isn’t just to develop better plow drivers. There’s a financial benefit in protecting the trucks, which can cost $170,000 a piece, and in protecting the road infrastructure.
“It also protects the environment when these guys know how to apply the salt properly,” he said.
How difficult is it to handle a snowplow? It’s more complicated than many would imagine.
A single-axle plow — a truck with one set of wheels in the back — can weigh up to 50,000 pounds when loaded, and sight lines are limited.
Just the simple act of backing up requires at least a dozen steps, including proper positioning, dropping gear, honking the horn, putting on hazard lights, exiting the vehicle, completing a visual clearance inspection at each corner of the truck, reboarding and lifting the gear again.
“The first couple times they get out there, they’re like 15 feet from the (cones), you know?” said Jon Yankovec, a heavy equipment operator for Ramsey County. “And by the time we’re done, they’re a foot away.”
Yankovec, who beat roughly 100 competitors to win a statewide snowplowing competition in St. Cloud two years ago, knows as much as anyone that back-to-back 8- to 12-hour days can wear on drivers, especially as they’re trying to avoid stuck cars, overhead wires, garbage cans, pedestrians, winter cyclists and snowdrifts.
The plows have less traction in the snow than most everyone assumes, and they need more stopping distance than a typical vehicle.
“Plowing is very intriguing, until you’re doing it for two weeks straight,” Yankovec said. “When you’re losing sleep, and not seeing your family, and it’s the weekend and you’d rather be with your buddies, it loses its momentum.”