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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More Money Than Sense

As a bridgetender, I often observe people in million dollar vessels doing the most idiotic things you can imagine. First of all, the price of the vessel seems to be directly proportionate to the lack of safety equipment on board. Rich people don’t seem to believe in marine radios or horns. They simply assume people will read their minds and get out of the way accordingly. They’ll casually drift into the path of 2000 ton barges and wonder why those barges aren’t giving way. They also seem to think that because they can afford a wet bar, this gives them license to drive while intoxicated.

This type of behavior isn’t restricted to boats. How often have you seen people in expensive sports cars driving recklessly? And don’t even get me started about private jets.

The more money you make, the more you risk suffering from what I call Do You Know Who I Am Syndrome. As in, I’m so special that the rules don’t apply to me. As in, I can now afford to stop taking anyone else into consideration.

So, you’re wealthy. Yeah, that means you might have worked hard at some point, and therefore deserve a cookie. It definitely means that you’re lucky. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re intelligent, Buddy-Roo.


[Image credit: messingaboutinboats.typepad.com]

Tragedy Between the Lines

When you work on a drawbridge, you’re sometimes a silent witness to some really tragic events. No one tells you that when you take the job.

On the bigger bridges you’ll get jumpers. Occasionally one will survive and 100 percent of those will say they regretted their action the second they jumped, which says a lot about how good an idea it was. Not. And the rest? Many are talked out of taking the leap, fortunately. The ones who actually jump and don’t survive often hit the wooden fender system before they hit the water, and the sound of their breaking bones can be heard in the tender house, as can their screams on the way down. It’s a sound you won’t ever forget. Then the rescue effort becomes one of body recovery. Here in Jacksonville, if the tide is coming in, they’re usually found tangled in the next bridge. If it’s going out, they’re found amongst the rocks at the jetties. Am I getting too graphic? Good. Because I want to impress upon everyone that jumping off a bridge is a bad, bad, BAD idea.

And then there’s the fact that we monitor radio channel 16, which is sort of the marine equivalent of listening to a police scanner. One day I heard a hysterical boater saying “My dog fell off the boat! Does anyone see a Golden Retriever in the water?” Being a dog owner myself, that sent me into a state of helpless anxiety. Fortunately, that story had a happy ending. The dog was recovered.

Another time we bore witness to the unfolding events when a city diver surfaced, only to have his face removed by a passing speedboat. Amazingly he survived, and spent months in the hospital, but I’m sure his life will never be the same.

Why am I in such a morbid mood? Because since Thursday night, the Coast Guard has been making this announcement about once an hour:

“Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan, all stations, all stations, all stations. This is United States Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville Florida, United States Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville Florida. Break. At time 2210 Coordinated Universal Time the Coast Guard received a report of a 55 year old man with no life jacket in the water 360 nautical miles off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida. All vessels are requested to keep a sharp lookout, assist if possible, and report all sightings to the Coast Guard. Signed Commander, United States Coast Guard, Jacksonville Florida. This is United States Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville, Florida out.”

The first time we heard the announcement, we all sat up a little straighter and thought, “Oh my God…” But unfortunately, we usually never hear the end of the story unless it’s on the news. From the Coast Guard website I learned that this guy was a commercial fisherman, out fishing for swordfish on 7 to 9 foot seas. I’m speaking in the past tense, because even though they’re still looking for him, once we all heard the announcement again an hour later, and then throughout the night, and for a couple of days now, we lost hope for him. No life jacket, rough seas, cold and wet. He’s gone, surely. I’m glad the Coast Guard is still looking, though. They do amazing work.

It brings tears to my eyes, because he was just trying to make a living in a very harsh industry, and I’m sure he has people who love him who are suffering greatly right now. His name was Peter Steewell. Please remember him. If what I fear is really true, may he rest in peace.