Snowplow pilots can’t let winter push them around.
The first sticking snowfalls have already happened in the higher elevations of the Quesnel region, and the fleet of graders, loaders, sandtrucks, plows and all their personnel are ready for action. The buildup to winter has been going on for weeks at the Emcon Services yards, and this year’s relatively late winter weather has allowed for every bolt to be tightened and drop of brine to be brewed.
Tom Hannah is the road foreman for the Wells chapter of the local winter road story. Emcon also has divisions based in Quesnel, Nazko, Hixon and McLeese Lake. Hannah said his collection of the roads and highways average 25 feet (7.6 metres) of total snow accumulation in a year. Last year, he said, was “a total disaster” from environmental point of view, getting only eight feet (2.4 metres). He doesn’t expect a winter drought again, and it never comes quite the same way no matter what year you’re talking about. For example, most of the snow last year came in massive pileups at the end of winter, leaving little room to put the heavy white buildup anywhere.
That’s just one of the challenges faced by these drivers, and one of the less stressful. Hurtling down the road with mountains of cold, dense, opaque snow to hurl away from traffic has an incredible amount of constant consideration to process. A local driver will commonly put 600-650 kms of road under them, in a single day, when new stuff is falling relentlessly from the sky.
“When people see us going down the road, they don’t realize what all we have going on, all these functions, here. We’re really busy guys in these cabs,” Hannah said, indicating the front seat workspace that could be mistaken for a starfighter cockpit, with all the levers, lights, buttons, screens and even voices in use. He’s been doing this job for 18 years, after a career as a logging truck driver, and he still isn’t perfect at it, he said. It takes time to build the unique skills required.
“New ones can’t start out with all this.” he said. “I’ve had guys who’ve driven logging trucks for 30 years give it a try and they quit after three days because it’s too much. It does get pretty intense.”
The intensity of the work itself can be one level of challenge, but that’s just clearing the snow, with all the physics and mechanics involved. What always gets added is the consequences of where the snow goes, at high speed and/or high quantity, and what might be unseen in the path of the plow.
“They don’t say ‘if’ you’re going to go in the ditch, they say ‘when’ because it’s going to happen,” he says as an assurance to new plow operators worried about that mistake. The forces involved, realities of visibility, and mathematical probabilities are just too high to think you can escape that fate.
Less rational to process is the stress caused by the other humans who come into the scene. It is the behaviour of other drivers - sometimes unwitting, but sometimes deliberate - that poses much of the risk to safety to the snowplow pilots, and the rest of the driving community. Drivers face an annual element of abuse and compromised safety while driving, because other drivers try to drive too close, cut them off, or other acts of aggression and/or stupidity.
That’s where Emcon’s Quesnel manager Chad Mernett steps in.
“These plow drivers want nothing more than to keep the roads as safe as possible for the public,” said Mernett. “Constantly fingering them or swearing at them for doing the best they possibly can is very hard on morale. Believe me they take huge pride in making sure everyone is safe.”
Despite the challenges, said Hannah, and in some ways because of them, he loves his job. Veteran snowplow pilots will often tell you about times they were scared, times they were angry, but more times that they felt the satisfaction of making the public’s life better, often to the point of saving lives. He encouraged aspiring truck drivers to consider the snowplow profession, because of that unique knowledge that you’re helping in a critical time.
“It’s a really good job. I really enjoy plowing. We are 100 per cent here for public safety.”
To the rest of the motoring public he encouraged patience and calm when on the road in the presence of a plow truck. If the going is slow, drop back a considerable distance, and relax in the knowledge that whatever you are rushing to do will not be worth the alternatives of all that could go wrong when being aggressive on a snowy road. He isn’t just hopeful every motorist gets where they need to go, he is driving for it.
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