The Falcon | Volume 83, Issue 53
Published 5/29/13 | Log In
The day-to-day tasks of the bridge operator are more than you think
By JOSH FLYNN, Features Editor
Published: November 14, 2012
Patty Perry inserted a key and turned it, bringing the control panel to life.
She stepped out onto to the catwalk outside her office (the third floor of the southeast tower) to give herself an idea of what the traffic below consisted of – how many cars were whizzing by, how many buses in the near distance.
Back inside, she flipped the switch marked “Don’t Walk.” Immediately, bells outside began to resonate over the cacophonous traffic. Drivers maybe started to drive a little faster.
On Fremont Avenue and Nickerson Street, the traffic signals turned green to ensure anyone exiting the bridge has the right of way.
Back in the tower, Perry snagged another peek at the east side (her side) of the bridge, looking for any last minute pedestrians, or anyone that might be trying to sneak a ride in the girders (the mesh of blue steel that makes up the sides of the bridge).
One man decides to book it south at the very last moment, springing every last step.
Using the network of cameras and monitors, she checked the west side of the bridge for pedestrians and then gazed down the street towards Fremont to see if any buses were coming.
She glanced outside once again to check her blind spot, the area just below her catwalk.
One button at a time, Perry lowered the traffic gates starting with the lanes that would let vehicles onto the bridge and ending with roads leading off of it.
The clock started ticking, marking the official start of the raise. All the while, a sub-cable buried underwater in the canal kept the machinery on either side talking to each other. This was done via four massive computer cabinets on each side.
Perry pushed another button cuing a slight boom in the distance that echoed from below the bridge’s center. It was the centerlock withdrawing (the mechanism that keeps the two leaves stabilized and locked together).
She checked her blind spot, lanes, sidewalks and cameras one last time before toggling the button marked “Raise.”
Deep below within, the bridge’s brakes were released and the motors began to run, allowing its pinions to crawl up along a rackbar: like a cog on a track of greasy teeth.
As the pinions crawled, the bridge’s counterweight, a massive steel block filled with cement, swung into a pit.
The end sight of this carefully designed digital/mechanical system: two massive spans each risen to an angle of 74 degrees, the absolute highest they can go.
After a few moments, the path between the leaves cleared. Perry hit the “Lower” button. The brakes set in, and the motors kicked out as the spans slowly descended.
The dials may have read the spans’ levels at zero degrees, but she checked visually to make sure they were completely aligned before resetting the center lock (this is what occurs in that awkward pause after the leaves level out, while drivers sit and wonder why the gates haven’t been raised yet).
Once locked in, she raised the traffic gates, followed by the pedestrian ones.
Within minutes, the bridge returned back to normal as traffic flew by. She sat at her desk logging the event in a hardcover ledger and on a computer.
FROM OUR PERSPECTIVE
Just about anyone living in the Emerald City has witnessed this from the road.
For most, the only time the thought of the Fremont Bridge passes through our minds is during that moment we hear that annoying sound of our tires grinding against the grate below.
For most, it’s that inconvenience we didn’t plan on receiving: that 10 minutes we would’ve reached our destinations quicker had we just made it across before the bells rang and the gates came down.
Maybe sometimes what might cross our minds is the mechanical wonder we pay witness to, as the massive spans rise high above, barely making so much as a peep.
But perhaps the very last thing on anyone’s mind is the man (or woman) high above behind the veil of steel and glass.
“PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT WOMAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!”
“Everyday has its ups and downs,” said Patty Perry (52), a senior bridge operator.
Raising the bridge is just one of many tasks bridge operators like her are responsible for.
“People don’t think we do anything, but believe me, we do,” she said.
Her shift begins right when a closing period goes into effect. They are time slots when the bridge is not to be raised except for crafts carrying 1,000 gross tons or more.
It is during this time that she makes her inspection and takes care of any other major chores that need to be done.
Donning a hard hat and a reflector vest, she checks the ground for any trash and debris as she heads toward the center of the bridge where she unlocks a panel of grating and descends a ladder down under.
Beneath the hustle and bustle of the traffic is a network of catwalks, ladders, machinery, cables, computers and a whole lot of grease and oil.
Perry runs through her chores: oils the buffers, inspects every room and takes note of any changes. From things that might need repair to the bum camped out near the north side of the bridge.
A Seattle native, she began working for Seattle Department of Transportation as a bridge operator on Dec. 15, 1988.
She gained her experience in mechanics and engineering solely from on-the-job experience with forklifts and fuses.
The department is in charge of maintaining any public pathway within the city. The bridges are just one small part of their responsibility. They operate four: the Ballard, University, Spokane and Fremont Bridges.
Despite the bridge operations being a small piece of the puzzle, it’s a job with constant tasks.
“I have things that need to get done every month, every other month, every three, four and six months, once a year and every other year,” Patty said.
Much of the job consists of preventative maintenance. That morning, the brake cylinders had to be oiled and gaged.
Every few months, she takes an entire day to grease the rackbars (the tracks the pinions run on).
Two weeks ago, Perry had to inspect and maintain the gates, which she ended up having to do in the pouring rain.
Inspections and walkthroughs are constantly being made. Gauges are always measured. Readings and tasks are always logged to ensure everything gets done according to schedule.
When ice and snow comes, she, along with the rest of the staff, are the ones outside salting the road to make sure its safe.
For Perry, she defines her job as being about safety.
“Every opening is job security… pedestrians, bicyclists and commuters, all of them are our customers, and we’re here to keep them safe,” Perry said.
The machinery may be the spectacle, but it’s the wizard behind the curtain that makes it happen.