Why Drawbridges Should Not Be Automated

I’ve got to confess, I’ve visited the NPR website, where you can find my interview, about a billion times. I’m proud of it (except for the horrible picture in which I weigh about 50 pounds more than I do now). The page also allows for comments, and I’ve participated in those quite a bit, too. It’s been fun to connect with people.

Some of the comments there sparked an interesting discussion. The theory was posed that it makes no sense to stick a “human in a tiny room to literally look out a window and push a button for an 8+ hour shift.” And he goes on to say that this “is the kind of inane cruelty only the State could come up with.”

This amused me quite a bit, because the whole point of the story was that I love my job. Absolutely love it. So how is it cruel? Yes, it isn’t for everybody. The isolation drives some people insane, and they quit after two days. But this job was made for me, and I can no longer imagine doing anything else.

Also, this person has a very, VERY oversimplified concept about what bridgetending entails. If you Google “drawbridge” and “death”, you’ll get some very interesting hits that will demonstrate just how important it is to take this job seriously.

We are responsible for the safety of boaters, drivers, bicyclers and pedestrians, many of whom take insane risks around what is essentially about a million pounds of moving steel and concrete. A machine can’t make independent decisions regarding an unpredictable number of variables. On a daily basis, I’m shown that warning bells and lowering gates is not enough to deter people.

A typical operating console.


And the operation is a lot more complex than pushing a single button. I wish life were that easy. Also, I am expected to maintain and inspect the machinery, report malfunctions, communicate with vessels, contact first responders, write reports, observe and report on some of the most bizarre incidents, and make hundreds of independent decisions a day that mean the difference between life and death as well as the difference between efficient flow of millions of dollars of cargo and financial ruin. I also have to carefully coordinate openings so as not to back traffic up for miles, all while following Coast Guard federal regulations as well as the policies and procedures of my employer.

Not only am I proud of what I do, but I genuinely think it’s vital. No automated system can ensure your life and health as well as a human can. As a reminder, I leave you with this photo of the woman who ignored the multiple warning signals on an automated bridge.

stupid drawbridge woman


4 thoughts on “Why Drawbridges Should Not Be Automated

  1. Thanks for sharing all of this. I didn’t even know drawbridge operators existed until I read your blog. If I thought about it at all I would have thought it was automated, similar to the way a grocery store door opens when you go near it. I realize now that was a way too simplified view of what is involved. Your job is very complicated, and I doubt many people could do it, even without the isolation factor. I think it’s inspiring that you’ve chosen to focus on the value of your job, and not the inherent stress.

    1. It’s actually easy to learn, but you have to be okay with the isolation, very vigilant and safety-conscious, and comfortable with making quick decisions based on ever changing scenarios. And there is stress at unanticipated moments, but mostly it’s very zen.

  2. Angiportus

    Oh yes…I’ve read a few. That idiot in the South who was yapping on the phone while driving and didn’t see the signals, crashed the gate and found himself making an unexpected stunt jump…He was just darn lucky, is all I can say.
    The blood curdles when the mind thinks about what could happen with a Scherzer bridge, if someone got caught under a quadrant. We used to have one in this region, and I understand that kids would sneak up under there and mash beer cans that way. I can understand the spirit of experimentation, but I am glad the authorities made that part inaccessible. –Naturally this pastime didn’t do the bridge any good, and it was on its last abutments anyway–Scherzers belong on solid rock, not on tideflats/alluvium.
    Anyway, I had the good fortune to see the Fremont Bridge’s console some 24 years back, and the one in the picture has even more buttons….I have faith in you. Some while back my boss got an automatic bandsaw with 15 different buttons and I thought “I wonder if I could figure that out even in a million years”, but in a fairly short while I had it sorted.
    A friend of mine claims to know of a railroad bridge that is operated by a satellite signal, and all I can say is, I hope that satellite never gets hit by a stray rock.

    1. Yeah. That light at the end of the tunnel wouldn’t be just an oncoming train, it would be an oncoming train exploding as it hit the bridge. :/
      But really, anyone could learn it. It’s just staying alert and not getting complacent. Two things a computer or a satellite can’t do.

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