Simulator helps Dubuque snow plow drivers prepare for winter

DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — As City of Dubuque driver Jordan Lamey took the wheel of a virtual truck and shifted into gear Tuesday, the plow at the front lowered and started pushing snow from the road.

Up ahead, a building was on fire, and police were arriving on scene.

Lamey was focused on counting ambulances. As he looked to his left and right, he spotted them in peculiar places, nestled in alleys and sitting in the middle of a field.

As his truck came to the end of the block, it suddenly halted. He looked up at fellow driver Chris Kennedy, who was standing next to him.

“I counted nine,” Lamey said.

Kennedy smiled and said, “I didn’t count that many.”

The Dubuque Telegraph Herald reports that Kennedy, Lamey and several other drivers for the City of Dubuque found themselves in a trailer behind the city’s Municipal Services Center. Inside, they took turns driving in a virtual simulation of a snow removal truck plowing during the winter. Surrounded by TV screens instead of windows, the drivers still needed to carefully make their way through traffic as they attempted to safely clear the computer-generated streets.

The virtual driving was part of a week of training the city’s drivers are undergoing as they prepare for heavy snowfalls this winter. Dubuque Public Works Director John Klostermann said this is the first time the city has used virtual simulation units to prepare its drivers.

L3Harris Technologies conducted the training at a cost of a little less than $25,000. Each driver participating in the training this week will undergo about two hours of simulated driving.

Along with the virtual training, the city’s drivers also will undergo in-person obstacle course training and attend informational meetings to prepare for winter.

“It’s really good whether or not you are a seasoned snow fighter or you are going to be out for the first time,” Klostermann said. “For our experienced drivers, it’s going to help them avoid any bad habits. If they are new, it’s a good way to get some experience with a truck with a plow on it.”

The city assigns about 30 Public Works Department personnel as snow plow operators for snow and ice control. While the city is capable of operating 30 trucks at one time for snow removal, drivers typically are split up into 12-hour shifts, Klostermann said.

He said the city spends about $1.5 million for snow and ice control operations every year, which covers wages, equipment and supplies. Klostermann said some independently contracted drivers also are hired to clear snow in city parking lots.

“Snow and ice control is a big operation,” he said. “We want to do it in the most efficient way and in the safest way.”

David Lawson, lead senior trainer with L3Harris Technologies, said the main purpose of the virtual training is to remind both new and experienced drivers of the potential dangers of driving a snow plow during severe weather.

Counting ambulances might seem trivial, but requiring drivers to do so during training ensures they are paying attention to their surroundings.

“Your visibility is greatly reduced because of the weather,” Lawson said. “We need to be moving our head and eyes constantly to get the newest information at all times.”

Kennedy has driven snow removal trucks for the city for 19 years. He said the simulated driving reminded him of the importance of remaining attentive.

“Obviously, the truck is totally different, but just seeing the scenery and driving is teaching you how to operate one that is real,” he said. “It’s teaching you to look around, so you don’t hit someone for real.”

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