There’s no such thing as a snow day for snowplow drivers.
Sitting high up in the cabs of behemoth dump trucks outfitted for snow-fighting, plow drivers appear bigger than life and perhaps a bit intimidating as they charge into blinding blizzards to keep roadways open and allow the region to remain mobile, even if it has been at a crawl these last few days.
So it would be easy to assume that it takes nerves of steel to pilot a plow. Actually, it takes much more than mere courage. Skill, common sense and a year of training are also required.
And this week, all of that know-how and ability is being put to the test as hundreds of plow drivers battle the region’s first official blizzard in 21 years. More than 455 state Department of Transportation plow drivers, 96 from other areas of the state, manned 180 plows around the clock, while snow-removal brethren from the region’s counties and municipalities also worked nonstop to keep up with the wind-driven snow.
It was battle that was won and lost many times over on area roadways Tuesday.
A handful of plows ended up in ditches. Others had to weave around abandoned vehicles or dodge motorists who had become disoriented and lost their way. And still other plows were forced to pull over because of zero visibility from whiteouts.
“Whoa, you’re on the wrong side of the road there, chief,” state DOT plow driver Rick Flis said softly to himself as the headlights of a minivan suddenly appeared from a whiteout, heading straight at his 37,000-pound, 10-wheeler dump truck, which was loaded with about 20,000 pounds of road salt.
Flis, a veteran of two decades of plowing, took his foot off the accelerator and gently maneuvered his truck around the oncoming vehicle, which crawled through a snow-clogged street in Lancaster’s Bowmansville on Tuesday afternoon.
Call that encounter an occupational hazard.
But even more frightening was when Flis’ two-way radio later crackled to life on the inbound Kensington Expressway in Cheektowaga. One of the two plows ahead of him, clearing the three-lane highway, issued a warning: “Drivers out of vehicles.”
Leaning over his steering wheel and peering out into limited visibility of perhaps 50 feet, Flis crept along. Each second of not knowing where they were seemed like an hour. Would they be in the center of the expressway? Or, off to the side? At last, two human figures emerged from a wall of snow. They were on the side of the road checking damage to their vehicles from a collision. Flis’ plow passed harmlessly by. Whew!
“That’s the worst. They had a little fender-bender and went outside their vehicles. They should stay inside them, out of harm’s way,” he said.
Moments later, another scare.
A man in a car attempted to pass Flis’ plow, which held the rear in a three-plow formation known as “close echelon plowing” that cleared the expressway’s three westbound lanes simultaneously.
After a mile or two of trying to pass Flis, who drove a modest 10 to 25 mph, the motorist gave up and fell behind the plow before exiting the expressway. Good riddance.
“There’s a lot of obstacles out here and a lot of dangers, and the traveling public is the biggest danger. There are signs on the backs of our plows that say ‘keep back 200 feet.’ The signs are covered with snow today, but I’ll look out my side window plenty of times and there will be a car right next to me,” the 47-year-old Lackawanna resident said.
And he is the first to admit that plow drivers are not infallible, which, he said, is another reason for motorists to give plows plenty of room on the road.
The safest place to be when roads are choked with snow, according to Susan Surdej, spokeswoman for the DOT in the Western New York region, is behind a plow.
“Our plow drivers operate in the most adverse conditions, and that is the most amazing part of it,” she said. “These drivers really do need the respect of motorists. Driving behind a plow is the safest place because your path is being cleared, but some people aren’t just patient enough.”
DOT plow drivers, she said, must have a commercial driver’s license and one year of experience before the state hires them. Then they receive a year of training that includes operating a large dump truck in wintry conditions, maneuvering plow controls and spreading salt and liquid deicer. Before new drivers can drive solo, Surdej said, they must pass a certification test.
On Tuesday, DOT driver Mike Duleck operated a plow for the first time since receiving his certification. It was an experience he will not soon forget.
“We were on Route 5 in Lackawanna by Ridge Road, and we had to stop. The whiteouts were that bad. Route 5 was a parking lot south of Ridge Road,” he said during a brief break at the DOT’s garage at Oak and Elm streets downtown. “It was definitely an experience.”
Other plow drivers congratulated Duleck, saying it was quite a way to begin his career as a plow driver. Between gulps of an energy drink, he agreed with his colleagues.
Plow drivers, Surdej said, work long hours during snowstorms: 12 hours on and 12 hours off, seven days a week. Depending on seniority and their civil service job classification, their annual salary ranges from $28,000 to $35,000, in addition to overtime.
Drivers say the impression of some that they are making a bundle of money is inaccurate. On a good year with overtime, their pay may enter the mid-$40,000 range, a figure Surdej did not dispute.
A big part of the payoff for Flis, he says, comes from the satisfaction in knowing he is providing a vital service to the public.
“I have great pride in my job,” he said. “The people behind me might be going to visit a sick relative, and we’re helping them get there safely. If we see an accident, we’ll stop when we can and call it into dispatch.”
For the past decade, he said his “beat” has been the Kensington Expressway to Genesee Street into Bowmansville and back. His partners in the other two trucks are Danny Robinson and Gary Mancini, who, like him, know every curve, traffic light and elevated manhole cover on the route.
Aside from good visibility, Flis said, a plow driver’s favorite sign that he is safe is the sound of the blade scratching against the road surface pushing away the snow.
“Metal against cement, it lets you know you’re still on the road,” he said.
At the end of his shift Tuesday, Flis was asked what his plans were for the rest of the day.
“I’m going home and shovel the sidewalk and driveway,” he said, “eat something, go to sleep and come back to work.”