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Akst: Plow drivers’ job a tough one this winter

Published: Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 10:21 p.m. CDT

When I told family/friends I was moving to the Midwest, a friend sent me “A Texan Moves North.” It’s one of those crude/funny Internet things. You can Google it.

After moving, this transplanted Texan is enchanted to see a pristine blanket of powdery white snow covering everything around his new home. How beautiful.

On Day 2, “a city snowplow came along and accidentally covered up our driveway with compacted snow from the street. The driver smiled and waved. I waved back and shoveled it again.”

Within days, the guy has devolved into Jack Nicholson at the end of “The Shining,” and his only goal was to mortally wound the snowplow driver.

We’re all familiar with clearing compacted berms of snow, and occasionally people get nasty, but generally, they understand.

Still, given the severity of this winter, now seems like a good time to check up on the folks keeping local civilization functioning: snowplow drivers.

On Wednesday, Nathan Schwartz, DeKalb County engineer, and Mark Espy, assistant director of DeKalb’s public works department, took time to chat with me. Usually I develop a list of questions for interviews, but this time, I just wanted to know how drivers are holding up.

Given the circumstances, things are going remarkably well, both men said. More on that in a moment.

The reason I was concerned is because of the circumstances.

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, fully equipped plow trucks weigh as much as 15 times more than an average car. A single-axle plow (one set of wheels in back) can weigh up to 50,000 pounds loaded. A tandem-axle plow (two sets of wheels in back) can weigh more than 70,000 pounds loaded. One mistake and a vehicle like that could plow through your house like a bowling ball through wet toilet paper.

That’s only the driving part. As Espy noted, the drivers who are plowing today are also fixing traffic signals and repairing water main breaks, like last weekend.

“In fact, it’s sometimes like a chess game,” he said, to determine what gets fixed in what order.

Then there’s the cleanup after the plowing. Espy said DeKalb has 122 cul-de-sacs and many municipal lots that must be cleared, resulting in removing thousands of cubic yards of snow.

Then there’s toll taken driving these trucks.

“It wears on you physically and mentally, drains you socially,” Espy said. “People have guests come to town and drivers [sometimes] can’t stay and visit.”

Schwartz said when drivers get home after a long shift, they’re “wired for hours.”

“Really, you aren’t getting very much sleep and it makes for a potentially dangerous situation if you have to do that too many days in a row,” he said. “It can be physically tiring and mentally hard on them and their families.”

Snowplow drivers are unlike commercial pilots or truckers in that snowplows are considered emergency vehicles, Espy said. That means the drivers sometimes have to work longer.

“But we still try to keep in mind fatigue and hours of the day,” he said. “If they get fatigued, [they] get out of the truck.”

Also, drivers have to be mindful of dwindling supplies of salt, and where and when to spread it.

In spite of all that, “Drivers are holding up very well especially for the number of hours and days they have worked in a row,” Schwartz said.

“I think the guys are performing exceptionally well,” Espy agreed.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, www.ninaonline.org. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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