Many people go about doing good deeds in their families, neighborhoods, organizations and church congregations. “Utah Valley’s Everyday Heroes” celebrates these unsung community members and brings to light their quiet contributions.
They have a rougher commute than you, they likely work longer shifts than you and they’re probably awake hours before you’ve even turned off your alarm. Yet it goes without saying, snowplow drivers may be some of the most underappreciated state employees.
“I don’t think they (the public) have a clue as to what we have to do to keep that interstate open and flowing,” said Dale Fitzhugh, a snowplow driver for the Utah Department of Transportation.
According to Eileen Barron with UDOT, more than 500 full-time snowplow drivers for UDOT are ready at the drop of a hat to clear Utah’s 6,000 miles of state highways and 980 miles of interstate of ice and snow to protect Utah’s motorists.
At the Lehi UDOT shed, a dozen snowplow drivers are equipped with some of the most well-constructed and high-tech tools, considering they have one of the most technical routes with the Point of the Mountain, American Fork Canyon and much of State Route 73.
“(Our days) usually start with a phone call around 2 a.m.,” laughed Seth Buhler, a UDOT snowplow driver. “
“Lots of coffee,” quipped Sage Peacock, another driver.
Marshall Terry, supervisor of the Lehi shed, said the drivers then typically have about an hour to prep their trucks and get ready to hit the roads. This includes spraying trucks down of excess salt, loading them with fresh salt or brine and checking all equipment for any damage.
Storms can happen any day, which mean snowplow drivers can come in when they least expect or want to.
“A lot of times on Christmas, we’re all in here,” Terry said. “You have to leave your steak dinner there on the table as you’re walking out the door.”
Once on the roads, snowplow drivers are among the first to tackle fresh snow and ice. Drivers are typically on the roads for about three hours at a time before going back into the shed, loading up with new salt or checking equipment, and going back out on the roads again.
“We’re out there in the worst conditions,” Fitzhugh said. “When everybody else wants to be home drinking hot cocoa, snuggling up to their spouse, we’re out in the worst possible conditions making it safe for people getting from Point A to Point B.”
The Lehi shed drivers have a unique route, in that it can snow two inches in Pleasant Grove and 20 inches near Tibble Fork Reservoir.
“Conditions are completely different in the canyon,” Terry said. “All of my drivers have to be trained in avalanche rescue also because of that.”
“It’s not uncommon to get black ice and solid ice before you get the snow on top of it up there,” Fitzhugh said. “You’ll go up there and think you’re just in the same conditions as down here, but realistically, you’re on a steep canyon road with nothing but ice underneath you.”
But despite the associated frustrations with snowplow driving, they wouldn’t change it for anything.
“Plowing’s a blast,” Buhler said. “I haven’t been here as long as some of these guys, but man, plowing is my favorite part of the job. You think two hours have gone by but 10 hours have gone by.”
Fitzhugh said it’s very obvious to see the work he’s done, which is gratifying to him.
“I get that fulfillment of doing that and getting out and opening up the roads,” Fitzhugh said.
When they aren’t snowplowing, drivers are typically assigned to other projects or road maintenance jobs, such as construction, road cleaning or maintaining UDOT equipment.
“Part of these guys could oversee construction projects in the summer,” Terry said. “I run this shed, I do accident repairs, fixing equipment, everything. Last week, I had 12 to 20 accident repairs.”
Imagine roads unplowed, covered in a few inches of snow, with a quarter-inch of ice underneath. Without snowplow drivers, most motorists are not getting across that road. That element of public safety is the greatest reward for these snowplow drivers.
“We’re not out there because we want to be out there,” Terry said. “We’re out there to get them home safely.”
That being said, the drivers had one desperate plea for the motorists who they protect.
“Get out of the way and let us do our job,” Terry said with a laugh.
“Give us an opportunity to work,” Fitzhugh said. “Those three minutes of inconvenience could save your life.”