Snow fighters participate in simulation training
WINDOM -- The setup looked like an extreme video game.
Participants sat in front three 42-inch flat screen monitors trying to navigate through a virtual obstacle course while a person they couldn't see controlled the terrain and weather conditions and could change them at a whim.
It may sound like a gamer's dream come true, but for the more than 60 snow fighting participants, it's valuable training that will help them do their job better.
MnDOT's state-of-the-art snowplow simulator can create nearly any roadway emergency, traffic or weather condition and includes almost everything found in a real snow plow except the coffee holder.
The software used for the simulation allows drivers to get near first-hand experience plowing in settings ranging from two-lane highways and rural areas to interstates and city streets, in daylight and night time.
Trainers are able to choose from seven different scenarios focusing on various driving techniques such as speed management, space management (maintaining appropriate distance behind other vehicles, using lanes properly etc.), snowplow training, adverse conditions, emergency maneuvers, fuel management and shifting techniques.
While in the middle of a training session, the supervising trainer can add additional hazards like blown-out tires, sudden changes of weather, icy roads and break failure.
Simulations are life-like enough to include vibrations in the seat and steering wheel while crossing virtual railroad track or potholes and all of the scenarios that challenge drivers to make good decisions based on the conditions around them.
After completing a simulation, trainees are given a percentage reflecting how they did.
Things as seemingly small as not fastening a seatbelt, going a mile over the speed limit or not completely stopping at a stop sign are noted and part of the overall score.
In a press release, MnDOT employee and south central Minnesota trainer John Traxler said, "The simulators allow us to create many real-life hazards and complicated situations for the drivers. I can present different scenarios to them and see what decisions they make, how they react, see the end results and ask them what they would do differently next time."
The training began in Windom from Jan. 30 and continues through Monday, and is in Mankato from Feb. 18 through March 7. County and city crews from across south central Minnesota will take part in the training.
Kathy Hokkala of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) said the agency has had a good response from local participants, adding that Rock, Cottonwood and Pipestone counties have been among the local snowplowing groups to participate.
To facilitate the training, Mark Holtz, Mike Schneiderman and Brian Spear -- all from the southwest Minnesota area and regular snowplowers -- are adding their expertise.
Hokkala said there are usually six to seven participants in each class, and most this year are new drivers.
"The past couple weeks, we've had newer people, so we've been playing it nice with them," Schneiderman added with a laugh, referencing the more difficult scenarios that can be thrown at drivers.
MnDOT has two units permanently housed in the metro area and a traveling unit that moves around the state and visits south central Minnesota annually.
Tim Zimmerman, MnDOT District 7 Superintendent, said the agency started exploring the use of training simulators after seeing how well simulators worked in other professional fields.
"We thought it might be a great training tool for us," he said.
A group of people from MnDOT began working with the University of Minnesota to create a snowplow simulator in the early 2000s, and the traveling simulator hit the road about six years ago. Shortly afterward, a permanent unit was established in Arden Hills.
"The trailer was going around the state, and because of the interest and the number of people using the simulator, they decided to add a permanent one," Zimmerman said.
This year, drivers will be evaluating their general skills and knowledge in managing speed, space, fuel usage, turning, maneuvering and their ability to back a large truck through various hazardous conditions.
The simulator is a valuable tool that allows snowplow drivers to experience life-like conditions with no fuel or truck-use costs, preparing them for weather conditions that would be difficult and dangerous to replicate in a real truck experience.
Zimmerman said he believes the snowplow simulator is valuable.
"From my perspective, the simulator is a good training tool that gives people the opportunity to be in situations that they might not be so comfortable with when they first start and it's a good tool for more experienced operators to refresh or enhance their skills," he said.
Daily Globe Reporter Alyson Buschena may be reached