Drawbridge FAQs

So, there’s actually a person making the bridge open and close?

Yep. I get that a lot. Nice to meet you. While there are some automated drawbridges out there (mostly railroad bridges in remote locations with little or no pedestrian traffic), the vast majority of drawbridges have a human operator. Safety is our primary concern, and they have yet to invent a computer with an algorithm to adapt to the unpredictable behaviors of pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists, and boaters. Every few years some fool decides to spend a taxpayer’s fortune to do a study about automating bridges, and it always turns out to be a really, really bad idea.

Don’t you get bored? What do you do between bridge openings? Don’t you go stir crazy? Do you sleep a lot?

I can’t speak for every bridgetender, but it’s a point of pride with me that I never sleep, and it frustrates me when people assume that I do. It’s insulting. I take my job very seriously. There’s a lot more to the job than simply sitting there and waiting for a boat to come along. There’s more paperwork than you’d expect. Opening statistics. Accident reports. Long opening reports. Maintenance requests. Log books. Safety lock outs. Supply requests. Many of us are also required to do maintenance, such as the greasing and/or cleaning of various pieces of equipment, the constant battle with pigeon poop and rat abatement, general cleaning, and inspections.

But yes, there’s plenty of down time, too. If you are the type to go stir crazy, you won’t last long on this particular career path. Everyone has their own way of keeping entertained, and every bridge has different policies as to what’s allowed. Some provide TVs and DVDs and/or allow you to bring your laptop to work. Some bridgetenders read books or newspapers or do crossword puzzles. Some of us are writers. I once knew someone who knitted a king sized blanket while listening to the radio. I sometimes sit here and pay my bills.

I also used to know of a bridge that didn’t allow its employees to do anything at all. That, to me, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and those bridge operators slept all the time. I think it’s much better to keep busy and alert, and continually scan the waterway for approaching vessels.

How do you know when someone needs an opening?

Generally they will call us on the marine radio or give us a horn signal. Others will just come up to the bridge and sit there, but since we’re not mind readers, they will most likely sit there for quite some time. If you have a boat, it’s very important to familiarize yourself with the Coastguard Federal Regulations, particularly as they pertain to communicating with drawbridges.

Is the bridge manned 24 hours a day? How many hours a day do you work?

That varies from bridge to bridge. The Coastguard regulates when each bridge is not required to open for vessels. Some bridges do not have a graveyard shift. Some bridges share one employee who drives from bridge to bridge to do openings as each vessel transits the waterway. Some bridges over water that ices up are only opened seasonally, or by appointment only. Most of us work 8 hour shifts, but I do know of a few who work 12 hour shifts. Some bridges only allow part time employees to avoid providing benefits.

How much money do you make?

It’s unbelievable how much variation there is from region to region. Some bridgetenders only make minimum wage and get no benefits whatsoever. I’ve known some railroad bridge operators who make 45 dollars an hour and have retirement and every benefit under the sun. The primary difference seems to be whether you have a union or not. I strongly urge unionization to every bridgetender. Power to the people!

How do you get a job as a bridgetender? Do you need special training?

Let’s face it. This isn’t rocket science. If you can read and write, and have functional arms and legs, and good hearing and eyesight, you can be trained on the job. Some important skills to emphasize in an interview are taking safety seriously, customer service, and reliability. Since some bridges are operated by states, some by counties, others by cities, and still others by subcontractors or railroads, it’s best to just approach a bridgetender on the job and ask them who to contact. (Just don’t sneak up on us. We hate that.)

How often do you open the bridge?

That varies greatly from bridge to bridge, and from season to season. Some bridges only open a few times a year. Here in Seattle, I can go several days without an opening in the dead of winter, and then get 15 openings in a shift on a summer holiday weekend. My alltime record was opening for 225 vessels in an 8 hour shift in Florida. Granted, I let several boats through each time, but still, I didn’t get to eat lunch, and  had to get kind of rude just to take a bathroom break.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Witnessing suicide attempts. And it happens more often than you might think.

Why is there such a long delay between the time the bridge closes and the time the traffic gates go up to let cars through again?

Patience, grasshopper. Once the bridge is seated, a lock has to be driven along the underside of the structure so that the bridge doesn’t bounce open while you drive over it. From the point of view of a car, it may seem like nothing is happening at that time, but we cannot raise the gates to let you through until those locks are driven.

If you have any other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section below!


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A Really Bad Day in the Life of a Bridgetender

1:00 – 5:00 am: Dog periodically wakes up, dry heaving, causing me to periodically wake up. He has gotten into the landlady’s compost heap again.

6:15 am: Alarm goes off. I sit up in a fog. Room spins. I feed dogs, one of whom is predictably not hungry. Let the dogs out, watch them head straight to compost heap. Too tired to protest, I go inside and make oatmeal. Drop can on toe. Break toe. Heavy can of stew, not light can of consommé. But fully awake now.

6:30 am: After weeping in agony, I realize I’m not sure toe is broken. But I am known for breaking foot bones without knowing it, so jury is still out. Tape up toe, put on shoe, hobble around kitchen making breakfast.

6:45 am: Get dressed in extremely unattractive uniform. Have breakfast. Spill hot oatmeal down front of shirt. Put bowl in sink with the mound of dishes already residing there. Change uniform. Muttering, attempt to get dogs back inside. They prefer company of compost heap. Cursing, hobble to far corner of yard, pick both dogs up bodily and carry them toward house. Step in hole created by dog. Fall flat on face in a fresh pile of doggy doo. Now ankle hurts. Same foot. Of course. Round up dogs, hobble into house, take off shoes and nasty uniform, take tape off toe, take shower and tape toe and change uniform again.

7:00 am: Leave house for 15 mile commute in rush hour traffic. Within mile of bridge, discover train parked on tracks. Take 2 mile detour. Cannot, but CANNOT be late! Departing bridgetender cannot leave until I arrive.

7:36 am: Limp up bridge, which has doubled in length overnight. If boat traffic is light, plan to get on internet and job hunt.

7:45 am: Arrive on bridge. Offgoing bridgetender assures me, a trifle too stridently, that all is working fine, just fine. Really. Everything is fine.

8:00 am: Offgoing bridgetender departs.

8:25 am: First bridge opening of the shift. Close gates to traffic. Push button to release locks so span can open. Nothing. Attempt to raise gates to let cars back though. Nothing. Extremely annoying gate alarm bell will not shut off. Call FDOT, shout over alarm bells to explain situation. Calls from everyone and his brother and copious amounts of paperwork ensue.

8:51 am: Workmen arrive on bridge. More paperwork. Attempts to do the exact same thing I’ve informed them I’ve already done come to no avail. Alarm still clanging away. Pedestrian knocks on door and suggests that we raise the gates so cars can come through. Slowly counting to ten in my mind, I politely explain that we would love to, but can’t. Pedestrian leaves.

9:15 am: Gates are manually raised, but traffic light will not turn to green. I stand on the sidewalk and flag traffic through with mixed results, and am treated to much cursing and rude gesticulations.

9:34 am: Gate alarms are turned off. Hallelujah. Small sense of sanity returns.

9:34 am to 11:30 am. Hobble around on sidewalk, trying to stay out from under foot as much head scratching by the workmen occurs.

11:30 am: Discover I’ve gotten a sunburn. Go back inside. To hell with being out from under foot.

11:30 am to 12:11 pm: As experts come and go and various people call for status updates, and each visit and call is logged in two places, I long for the day of job hunting that I had envisioned.

12:11 pm: Bridge fixed. Every boat on Eastern Seaboard now wants an opening.

12:37 pm: Workmen leave bridge. Between openings I use the bathroom and realize I’ve forgotten my lunch. Can’t leave the bridge.

2:15 pm: Driver pelts tenderhouse with eggs. Wishing he’d given me the eggs to eat instead, I attempt to wash windows with inadequate supplies.

3:00 pm: I am scheduled to mop floors, but think to myself, “Screw it,” and read a book instead.

3:45 pm: Relief bridgetender arrives. I inform her of my day. She is very critical of the way I did my job, especially in terms of cleaning tenderhouse. I count to ten once again. Then I assure her, a trifle too stridently, that all is working fine now, just fine. Really. Everything is fine.

4:00 pm: I limp back off the bridge to discover someone has let the air out of one of my tires. I call AAA.

5:20 pm: AAA arrives and confirms my suspicions and puts air in tire. I head home. I remember that I planned to make tuna casserole, but think to myself, “Screw it,” and go through the Popeye’s Chicken drive through instead.

5:45 pm: I remember I have to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, and while there I get pain medication for foot.

6:10 pm: I arrive home late, and predictably there is poop-henge on the carpet, fallen pillars and all. Oh, and vomit. I let dogs out. They head straight for compost heap, and I scream, “NO!!!!” Sensing I’m on the ragged edge, they do an abrupt u-turn.

6:20 pm: Carpet cleaned and dogs fed, I eat my now cold chicken and fall into a deep coma-like state until the dogs wake me up at 8:00 pm needing to go out.

8:00 pm: Dogs head for compost heap. I scream, “NO!!!!” and they do an abrupt u-turn yet again as neighbor gives me the hairy eyeball. He has no idea the level of my self-restraint. Ushering the dogs inside, I barely miss the hole that I tripped in this morning.

8:20 pm: I treat my sunburn, take a pain pill, decide that toe is only sprained, not broken, put the can of stew on the lowest shelf in the pantry, give sink full of dirty dishes a passing glance, realize I’m out of uniforms for the next day thanks to the oatmeal and the dog poo, put in a load of laundry, and fall into a deep sleep full of frustration dreams.

10:00 pm: Dog wakes me up with his snoring. Being a dog is hard work. I put the wash in the dryer, then climb back into bed, pull dog close and fall back to sleep.