For the first time this winter season, Wyoming Department of Transportation plow trucks are out in force on the state’s highways. As much as 18 inches of snow could fall in parts of Wyoming by a storm system that started moving in Wednesday.
And it’s all being attended to by a small armada of WDOT plow trucks.
WYDOT faces its biggest road maintenance challenges during the winter, especially being short-staffed. But the agency said this winter won’t be like last winter, which was one of the coldest and snowiest on record.
Earlier this year, WYDOT anticipated it could be short as many as 70 plow drivers by the time the first snow fell. That situation has since improved.
“We’re in good shape,” said Cody Beers, spokesman for WYDOT District 5 in northwest Wyoming. “We’re still trying to hire plow drivers in other parts of the state, both permanent and temporary. But statewide, I think we’re in quite a bit better shape.”
A persistent hiring problem isn’t exclusive to WYDOT. There are many jobs in communities like Gillette and Rawlins, creating a target-rich environment that makes recruitment difficult for many industries.
WYDOT’s continues to actively recruit through newspapers, radio and “free advertising” on social media. It also attends job fairs around the edges of Wyoming, hoping someone might relocate for a WYDOT position.
Beers said there’s only so much that can be done, given the cost of advertising.
“It’s so expensive, and we don’t have the recruiting budgets to do much of it. We try to put our information out there in any way we can in the most cost-effective way,” he said.
Many of the new WYDOT employees are younger and gaining experience on the job. Many could be getting their first plowing experiences this week.
Preparing For Whatever Winter
WYDOT’s fleet of trucks also is undergoing its annual inspections while being fitted with sanders and plows. The department’s salt brine plants are up and running, as WYDOT makes its own salt brine to spread on icy roadways.
“It’s like maintaining your vehicle,” Beers said. “We’ve got to get it ready for the winter season.”
Nobody’s sure exactly how this winter season will play out, Beers said. The hope is that it will be significantly less severe than the 2022-2023 winter season, but Mother Nature might have other plans.
Even so, WYDOT doesn’t hope. It prepares.
“We don’t hope for anything. We deal with what comes at us, and we’re preparing for the long haul,” Beers said.
WYDOT adapted to last winter’s challenges and learned from it, he said. One effective adaptation was plow drivers volunteering to work outside their districts to help plow other areas.
“If we get shorthanded in one part of the state, we’ll have guys in another part of the state help them. We did it last year, and it worked,” he said.
Beers doesn’t think anything could have fully prepared the department for the intensity of the last winter season. However, being prepared, ready and capable are separate concepts.
“You always prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” he said. “I don’t think you’re ever prepared for what happened last (winter). That was a winter like we haven’t had in a generation. It was survival and on-the-job training for seven months. People were pretty burnt out by the end of it, but they preserved, and we got through it.”
The Person On The Plow
One avoidable problem WYDOT is always aware of is crashes involving plow trucks and other vehicles.
Most people fear getting side-swiped by a plow truck, but Beers said the most common accident is when vehicles crash into the back of the trucks.
“Our plows create snow clouds, which can be difficult to see from the back,” he said. “When people crash into the backs of our trucks, they’re generally driving too fast for the conditions.”
Another common crash is vehicles attempting to pass on the right side of a plow truck and hitting the wing plow on that side. Wing plows are hydraulically controlled by the driver and are not always deployed. It can be hard to tell when driving behind a plow truck and the cloud it creates.
Hitting a WYDOT plow truck is a major setback for the department and other drivers. Depending on the severity, a truck could be out of commission for several days.
“If you take a sander out of commission and bend the back of the truck really bad, it’s going to be a while before we get another sander in that truck,” Beers said. “We have a limited number of trucks and try to keep as many on the road as possible. They’re big trucks, but they usually can’t get back on the road immediately.”
Then there’s the financial aspect, something Beers doesn’t think Wyomingites consider when they get too close to a WYDOT plow truck.
“If you hit a state-owned vehicle, you’re paying for the damages to both your vehicle and the state-owned vehicle,” he said. “That will be paid through your vehicle insurance, which can be detrimental to your insurance coverage.”
More than anything, WYDOT wants drivers to recognize that it’s not just a plow truck on the road. Beers reminds everyone that a WYDOT employee is driving each truck, and their safety is equally important as any other driver’s.
“We want drivers to realize here’s a person driving that truck with a goal to make the roads safer. They’re doing that job for you, and they want to get home safely every day,” he said.
Snow What’s Going On
The best way for drivers to prepare for winter travel is to be proactive about when and when not to travel. With accurate weather forecasts and WYDOT’s 511 app, it’s much easier to make informed decisions, something Beers said he hopes more people will do this winter.
“If you don’t have to go, don’t,” he said. “Get your vehicle looked at and make sure you’re prepared for winter driving. Leave early for your destination so you don’t have to speed on an icy road. It’s coming.”
The long-term forecast for the 2023-2024 winter season suggests that the season will be longer and colder than last winter, but shouldn’t bring as much snow. Nobody will know until it arrives, and WYDOT is as ready as ever to rise to whatever challenges await.
“We’re going to be busy,” Beers said. “Our guys are ready for another winter. That’s life in Wyoming.”
Andrew Rossi can be reached at email@example.com.