MoDOT conducts winter weather drill today, adapts to statewide crew shortages

MoDOT crew members Matt Jones and Jack Kirtlink install a plow in preparation for the statewide winter weather drill on Wednesday. Today, MoDOT crews will respond to a simulated report of a statewide winter storm, practicing routes, testing communications and emergency alert systems and other equipment. MoDOT is grappling with a high turnover rate and employee vacancies across the state. Currently, there are not enough drivers to cover more than one 12-hour shift in the event of a statewide winter storm. The department is adapting to the situation and seeking candidates for emergency equipment operator and full-time positions.

HANNIBAL — Missouri Department of Transportation crews are embarking on their statewide winter weather drill today, preparing for winter weather and adapting to record turnover rates and shortages of snow plow drivers across the state.

The drill will involve crew members responding to a simulated forecast of significant snow across Missouri. The department’s emergency operations centers will be activated, maintenance employees will be deployed to their trucks, communication systems and other equipment will be tested. The drill is crucial, with a significant number of crew members operating a snow plow for the first time, said Becky Allmeroth, MoDOT chief safety and operations officer.

“With nearly 20% of our plow operators with less than one year of experience, this training drill is important to be ready when snow flies,” she said. “One of the most valuable parts of the drill is it allows our newest employees the opportunity to drive a snowplow over their designated routes so they are aware of curbs and raised islands that might be hidden in snow or ice.”

Allmeroth said MoDOT focused for the past several years on metropolitan areas like St. Louis and Kansas City as “hot spots” with more vacancies and higher turnover rates. The situation looks much different for 2021.

“We just do not see a differentiation this year between the rural and the urban — we are seeing gaps in vacancies and turnover in every corner of the state,” she said.

MoDOT has experienced record high turnover rates, including more than 70 employees leaving every month for the past six months. Allmeroth said many driver-based service industries are experiencing similar employee shortages with everyone competing for the same truck drivers.

MoDOT’s objectives and what they hope to accomplish have not changed, but Allmeroth stressed that there would be issues following a statewide storm requiring more than 12 hours of work — some storms require a second, third, fourth or fifth shift to clear the roadways.

“We are several hundred employees below what we need in order to cover more than one shift in a statewide storm,” said Patrick McKenna, MoDOT director. “If a widespread winter storm lasts more than one 12-hour shift, we will not have enough employees to fill all the trucks on the second shift and therefore it will take longer to clear the roads.”

During the drill, motorists may experience an increased presence of MoDOT vehicles on roadways, with operations scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. in rural areas and after 9 a.m. in urban areas. The drill is set to conclude at 3 p.m.

Allmeroth said the strategy for winter response will be on a “storm-by-storm basis,” with a shift set aside to park vehicles. Since there is generally less productivity during nighttime hours, trucks will likely be parked during that time. There is a bit of disparity regarding staff vacancies between buildings, and plans are in place in the event the flu or COVID affects the crew at one building.

Crew members are planning on plowing a bit farther into areas where there are less staff available. Also, if a storm affects one part of the state, MoDOT will send teams directly to the affected area to take care of the roadways. Allmeroth said there are a variety of different strategies planned, and she noted one aspect that is particularly crucial.

“The most important thing we can do as MoDOT is to communicate to the public, probably a day before that storm — to let them know what to expect,” she said.

MoDOT will send press releases to media outlets regularly, and Allmeroth said the Traveler Information app for mobile devices provides timely information regarding road conditions in the area. Information is also available by visiting www.modot.org.

The information can help people decide if they should bring a laptop with them to work from home, to double or triple their expected commute time or stay in place, based on the current conditions. And Allmeroth said snow plows are equipped with GPS-powered telematics equipment, which allows MoDOT personnel to see the vicinity of the trucks and which roads have been treated and how many treatments they have received through the system’s digital “bread crumbs.” When people call 1-888-ASK-MODOT, there is more information available than ever before.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to do and work on — making sure that we can get as much information to the traveling public, because they really are a resource that we use for winter operations. If we can get more people to stay home and allow the plows to do their job — it’s so much more efficient for us to get the roadways clear,” Allmeroth said, stressing that if trucks get stuck in traffic, crews have more difficulty clearing the roadways efficiently.

Allmeroth also reminded everyone to be safe as the weather begins to change. She said some motorists make the mistake of attempting to overtake a snow plow, but sometimes there is a “wing plow” on the side which motorists may not see at first.

“The absolute safest place to be is behind that plow, because we are making the roadway clear,” she said. “Stay behind the plow. Give them plenty of room, because again, we have almost 20% of our operators that’ll be in a plow for the first time this year. So they’re a little apprehensive about that, and we want to make sure that they’re successful and really able to clear a path to make the roads safe and passable to motorists.”

Anyone who would like more information about career opportunities can visit www.modot.org. Allmeroth said people with jobs like landscaping who are not as busy during the winter could be good candidates. She said previous experience with a plow is a plus but not required but a CDL license is needed. Training is provided, and there are openings in emergency equipment operator status and full-time status.

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