By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
In the face of an extreme shortage of personnel, the Wyoming Department of Transportation is having to triage highway safety, making difficult decisions that will leave some roads unplowed after snow events and some fender-benders without an attending officer.
WYDOT Director Luke Reiner told Cowboy State Daily there are shortages across the board for the agency.
From snowplow drivers to dispatchers to highway patrol troopers, WYDOT is “a big team that provides safety on the road,” he said.
And there now aren’t enough of them to adequately cover the 6,800-plus miles of highway crisscrossing Wyoming.
As of this week, WYDOT is short 71 snowplow drivers and 50 highway patrol troopers.
Reiner said the state is actively recruiting to plug the holes in WYDOT’s staffing
“We’re hiring across the board in all three of those areas, if any of your listeners or readers are interested,” Reiner said.
‘We Have A Plan’ For Snow Events
Reiner said the state does have a plan to make the best use of the snowplow staff available, tracking vacancies in all parts of the state and using a map that is generated once a week to denote where WYDOT is shorthanded.
The map allows managers to determine where the assets are in terms of snowplow drivers, and then move drivers to potential problem areas based on where storms are happening.
“So if there’s a big storm in the south and not one in the north, then we can move assets from the north to the south,” Reiner said. “We did that very successfully during ‘Snowmageddon’ (in May).”
Based on information provided by the map, while some areas of the state are fully staffed (northwest, north-central and extreme southwest and southeast), there are other WYDOT hubs that have few snowplow drivers, such as Rock Springs, Muddy Gap and Hulett.
In the case of a storm that spans the state, not every road will be cleared in a timely manner.
“If it is a statewide storm, then that response time will slow down, because it’s purely an issue of the number of snowplows available,” Reiner said.
He added the agency has and ace up its sleeve – using CDL holders on staff who aren’t on the payroll as snowplow drivers.
“They might have been driving for us before and then got a different job,” said Reiner, “so we look for volunteers to be available for the big storms.”
Leaders, Prioritizing Calls Fill Gaps for Highway Patrol
Along with too few snowplow drivers, addressing the same issue of not enough Wyoming Highway Patrol isn’t as easily addressed as shuffling staff from one part of the state to another. Reiner said that higher-ranking officers across the state are being asked to fill scheduling gaps to patrol and respond to calls.
Unfortunately, sometimes troopers simply won’t be available to respond to some incidents, he said.
“For example, if you hit a deer and you aren’t injured and the car is drivable, you make the call (to the highway patrol) and maybe they say, ‘Hey, just file a report,’” Reiner said. “It’s not something we’d like to do, but sometimes that’s what we’re being forced to do.”
When it comes to seeking out new officers, which is happening on a national level, the fact that Wyoming residents are favorable to law enforcement is a benefit.
“In Wyoming we still love our law enforcement,” Reiner said. “That’s a really important message for those who might be considering becoming law enforcement officers is that in Wyoming, it’s still a greatly respected profession.”
Recruitment And Retention
While it’s not an immediate fix, another big draw for new recruits might just be an imminent pay raise on top of an increase employees received this year.
“It is music to our ears, that there’s another raise being considered, because I do think it’s important to continue to make ourselves competitive,” said Reiner.
Reiner said that on top of the tangible benefits – good health care benefits, a defined retimrement plan, flexible hours and competitive wages – part of what makes working for WYDOT as a snowplow driver is something intangible.
“When the roads are terrible and your mom wants to go to the grocery store, or you’ve got to take your sick kid to the doctor, or you need to get your cattle to market, somebody is out there on those roads,” he said. “And when you talk to the current snowplow drivers, that’s the reason you hear that they stay over so many years. ‘I’m going to make sure that those roads are open, because you know, my family travels on those roads.’”
The same goes for highway patrol troopers, Reiner said.
“Snowplow drivers are like troopers, they operate close to home,” he said. “So they have a lot ownership in the roads that they either clear and maintain or patrol. And so for me, it’s about making our state better for those of us that live here, and those that pass through.
“(We) make sure that we do the best possible job we can with the assets we have for the residents of the state of Wyoming.”