Driving a snowplow can get pretty harry hairy sometimes
Shoveling snow from sidewalks can be a tough job, but for Spokane County plow drivers, removing it from the roads presents even greater challenges.
While some plow drivers are greeted with a thumbs-up or a wave, others encounter residents angry about berms across their driveways.
As the county’s road department cleared snow from residential neighborhoods Wednesday morning, Bryan Dowd, District 1 supervisor, received a call from a plow driver working in the Camelot neighborhood in north Spokane who claimed a resident with a gun threatened him.
The resident – upset the plow driver created a berm in his driveway – climbed onto the grader, screamed obscenities and attempted to rip open its door.
The driver noticed the resident had a gun and called 911. Two Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene, but it was later determined the resident wouldn’t face any charges because he didn’t pull the gun from its holster.
“It’s uncalled for,” Dowd said, referencing the incident. “I’m not sending (the drivers) in to get shot at, I’m sending them in because we have a job to do.”
Not more than 10 minutes after the incident, another resident, who appeared to be on a morning walk, approached plow drivers asking why the county isn’t using snow gates on their graders to prevent berms in driveways.
Spokane County recently announced it purchased two snow gates for its fleet of graders.
“It’s very irritating for people to have to shovel their driveways,” the resident said. “We have a lot of older people out here and we have a lot of kids that have to wait for buses in the street. Come on here!”
Dowd said plow operators don’t want to put snow in driveways, they just want to clear the roads.
“We feel bad about it, but where are we going to put the snow?” he said, adding that plow operators, just like residents, also have to shovel their sidewalks and driveways after getting off of work.
It’s a common occurrence for plow operators to encounter irate residents, which makes them leery of plowing residential neighborhoods, he said.
Neither the city of Spokane nor city of Coeur d’Alene have had reports of angry residents trying to enter the cabs of snowplows.
“I think, probably, our positive responses outweigh our negative responses,” said city spokeswoman Marlene Feist. “We get some of the frustration on things like social media.”
However, in Spokane Valley on Tuesday, a resident threw a snow shovel at a grader, said Annie Gannon, Spokane Valley spokeswoman.
Emotions tend to run high when there’s a lot of snow, said Tim Martin, streets and engineering director for the city of Coeur d’Alene.
“My operators don’t get shovels thrown at them,” he said. “Most people are very appreciative to see us.”
Residents who block equipment or threaten a snowplow driver could be charged with disorderly conduct or assault, said Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter, a Spokane County spokeswoman.
“We understand their frustration, but threatening someone with harm is never acceptable,” she said. “Standing in front of a grader is dangerous. We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Plow drivers with the Spokane County roads department have been working around the clock to clear more than 2,500 miles of roads after a winter storm dropped more than 9 inches of snow in the Spokane area since Monday.
The county’s road District 1, with 26 employees, covers more than 709 road miles in northern Spokane County. Drivers typically work from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. during major snow events.
Before snowstorms arrive in the area, road crews will ensure graders are chained and fully fueled.
“We check that over before the storm gets here, that way we can turn the key and we’re off,” Dowd said.
Dowd said it’s tough for plow drivers working around the clock during snow events. The job can be stressful, with constantly navigating traffic and pedestrians while spending more than 12 hours a day in a truck.
“The equipment can break down. People can break down,” he said. “It wears on you when you are out there 12 hours a day.”
Dowd worked for the county for more than a decade, driving heavy equipment and then transitioning to a management role – a position he’s held for six years.
“I always wanted to make a difference with this position now and I want to be the guy that’s doing my best to make a difference,” he said. “I love being a manager and being a part of what we do out there.”
Sandy Aukerman, a plow truck driver employed with the county for more than 20 years, is responsible for clearing an area north of Francis Avenue between U.S. Highway 2 and U.S. Highway 395.
During major snow events, it’s mostly sleep, eat and work, said Aukerman, who typically wakes at 2:30 a.m. each day to begin her 4 a.m. shift.
“But I know it won’t last forever, and it’s kind of a challenge to get my area caught up,” she said, refering to the recent snowstorm.
Aukerman, in addition to plowing roads, also works on the county’s road construction crew in the summer.
“I kind of always liked being outside,” she said about her job. “The outdoors is my office.”
Aukerman said plowing snow requires a great deal of multitasking. Drivers have to be aware of traffic, pedestrians and obstructions in the road, all while operating the plows.
But she enjoys plowing snow, and the days tend to go by fast.
“The reason why I do it is so people can get home or to school safely,” she said. “I hope I’m helping people.”