A safe way to get the feel for plowing snow

IMG_3544Do you remember getting behind the wheel for the first time? It was likely terrifying and exciting all at the same time. Now imagine what that experience is like if the wheel is attached to a 50,000-pound snow plow and you’re headed out into your first snowstorm.

“These machines are very large and we are often working in less than ideal conditions. If the person behind the wheel isn’t adequately trained, there is a real potential for danger,” said Craig Bargfrede, Iowa Department of Transportation winter operations administrator.

Many Iowa DOT snowfighters are seasoned veterans with years of experience under their belts. Several are at or near retirement age, so we're hiring new snowfighters to keep you moving. Since getting that first feel for snowplowing isn't something we want to do in an actual storm, we’ve trained a large number of new men and women on a high-tech simulator.

Over the last decade, the Iowa DOT developed a snowplow simulator to help train new employees and refresh the skills of returning snowfighters. “This year we determined that the old simulator was no longer working for us,” said Bargfrede. “The computers that ran it were operating on old software that couldn’t be updated and the scenarios no longer reflected situations our staff might encounter on the job. Our field forces did their best to train new employees, but it was difficult when the technology didn’t keep up.”

So Bargfrede and his team began researching options. As part of several national research groups, Bargfrede is in frequent contact with his counterparts in other snow states and was able to gather ideas. “There are companies who have developed mobile snowplow training simulators like our in-house version but with much more updated technology, we chose to hire one of those companies to provide our training,” said Bargfrede. “It is much more cost-effective than developing our own simulator from scratch again and we can bring in these folks for several weeks to travel around to each of our six districts and train large numbers of employees in a short time.”

training simulator trailer
It doesn't look like much from the outside, but this training simulator will help us keep you safer this winter.

Working with the chosen consultant, Bargfrede worked in the off-season to make sure the training met all Iowa DOT requirements and that the scenarios are realistic to Iowa winters. “One thing the updated training has that we were never able to accomplish is movement in the simulator seat,” Bargfrede said. “In the new training, employees feel the rumble of driving and have to react to being bounced around in some of the scenarios, like they would in the actual snow plow.”

Throughout October and into November, the simulator trailer was moved around Iowa, working from north to south, spending one week in each of our six districts. The two-hour training was provided to four employees at a time, with four sessions each day for a week. That allowed for 80 employees in each district to receive training this fall.

Bryon Kuehl taking the simulator for a spin
Bryon Kuehl, seated, takes the simulator for a spin while Spencer Hogan (far right) and instructor Todd Heck look on.

Joe Mohlis has about a year of experience under his belt in the Elkader shop. He and co-worker Bryon Kuehl, a nine-year veteran, took the training in Mason City. Mohlis said, “The simulator really makes you think of things in a new light. It’s time to start thinking about ice and snow and how to do the best job to keep people moving in the winter.”

Kuehl took the training as a refresher. He said, “I trained on the old simulator when I first started nine years ago. These simulations are much more realistic, and the scenarios are actually things we deal with during winter weather.”

Classroom training portion
The training includes computer-based learning and discussion time in addition to the driving portion.



Spencer Hogan has been a snowfighter for three years at the Elkader shop. He said, “The simulator reminded me of just how easy it is to get distracted and how we have to be aware of what is going on around us at all times. It’s a great reminder going into winter.”

During the training, the employees are exposed to several situations. They are asked to anticipate hazards and manage space and speed and get out of their comfort zone a little bit. One of the trainers reminded the students, “In here mistakes are cheap and we can learn from them. Out there it’s a whole different story.”








Thanks for sharing this information. I appreciate all you IDOT drivers do for us. Must be long hours under difficult situations and drivers who are inexperienced and sometimes rather ignorant of winter driving conditions. It is always a welcome sight to see our Iowa City Plows come down and clear the circle I live on, as we have problems getting out without their expert plowing.

Hi Deana - this training is contracted. The trailer was in Iowa for just a few weeks, but I'm sure they would do training for local entities as well. There is a charge per student for the training. If you would like to get in touch with the contractor, you can contact our winter operations administrator, Craig Bargfrede at [email protected].

Does the IDOT ever bring this system to each region so that county/city personnel can experience it and help improve their skills? If not has IDOT ever considered offering it to each region even for a minimal cost of transportation? I was thinking like setting up one day in each region and inviting all the area county and city plow drivers to participate.

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