Building Bridges

By Patrick Gallagher, PE | Bridge Engineer and Inspections Lead


Bridges are often viewed as the attractive, exciting part of civil engineering, and they are! At least according to this bridge engineer. And keeping their reputation in this high standing is no easy task!



While we consider the excitement of bridge engineering as the design and construction, we should recognize there's more to it than that. Not every bridge rises to the level of a Golden Gate, or Brooklyn Bridge. Most bridges are ordinary, unassuming, and not noticed at all once they're open to traffic. And not all the excitement and glory of bridge engineering comes through design. It takes a lot of work and planning to maintain these bridges, and good maintenance starts with the eyes on the ground looking at them while they're in service.


The bridge engineering community designs a handful of bridges every year. But most of our bridges, hundreds of thousands of them, are in service already. And when just one of these thousands of bridges has a problem, we quickly notice the flaw and recall twisting bridge decks and gaping holes where bridges once stood. We don't think of the intricate engineering detail some mid-level engineer put into the design 60 years ago when it was built. We take notice because there's a problem and it incites fear in us.


Bridge inspection is a big deal! The safety and security of the traveling public are very dependent upon how well a bridge is maintained. Can you imagine how difficult your journey down the road would be if there were no bridges, or how much more traffic there would be if even a few key bridges were simply taken off the map? We can't ford a river as wagons did in the pioneer days. Our cars can't handle that, and most of us don't rely upon horses for our daily commute. We need bridges just to make it to the grocery store. And we don't even realize they're there.


Bridge inspection was born out of rapid growth and chaos. The 1950s and 60s saw rapid growth in our highway system, stretching our capacity to build big roads quickly. Maintenance was somewhat set aside to allocate resources to this massive amount of new work; and then, the Silver Bridge collapse in 1967 brought about the birth of our modern bridge inspection program. That bridge once spanned the Ohio River between West Virginia and Ohio and has since been replaced. That collapse brought about the birth of the bridge inspection program. Another bridge on I-95 in Connecticut collapsed in 1983 taking the bridge inspection to the next level, bringing about many elements we have in the modern-day bridge inspection program. Both of these failures killed many people and were the result of maintenance issues that a well-trained bridge inspector would have found, had there been a bridge inspection program at that time. So, in response to these failures, the Federal Highway Administration founded the program and set guidelines we use today.

Bridge inspection isn't just about preventing collapse to save lives. It's a part of a larger program designed to learn the condition of our bridges and identify problems while they are small and easy to fix. The data collected in bridge inspection is used to establish the condition of each and every part of a bridge so that owners, usually DOTs, can prioritize their funding to fix the most pressing areas before they become a problem and before the traveling public will notice a problem. Not only are lives saved through bridge inspection, but believe it or not, the result of bridge inspection is your tax dollars are spent carefully and thoughtfully to obtain the longest and best life out of a bridge. Bridge inspection is used to know exactly how much load a bridge can support so that drivers of heavy trucks can safely plan their routes so that they do not bring weaker bridges down. It's about safety, maintenance, and good prioritization.


While not every bridge inspector is required to be a professional engineer, they do have to have intimate knowledge of how bridges work. The best bridge inspectors often have a background in bridge design, and most are registered professional engineers. They have to pass a two-week training class, and then get recertified every two to five years, depending upon the state they work in. (In North Carolina it's five years.) It's not work that is taken lightly, and states demand a high level of competence.


Now I'm not here to give a history lesson on bridge inspection. But it's important to recognize the history behind the work we do to fully appreciate it. It helps us understand the needs of our clients, helps us best learn our role in the communities we serve and helps us understand how our company values fit into the broader context of the world around us.


I want to outline how our bridge inspection teams touch on Vaughn & Melton's core values.


Value Number 1: "To do the right thing."

This goes without question. We have a reputation for doing good inspection work because we take the time to do it well, and our bridge inspection managers equip our staff well. It takes good resources to do good work, and obtaining the right tools, quality tools, and a responsive manager. In my time in the private sector, that has not always been my experience at other firms. Here, these resources come easily. All I have to do is ask, and the answer is always yes if it's clearly useful for the work. It also takes time. As with any job, there are shortcuts that can be taken. We don't do that. Our inspectors are required to be certified and recertified every five years. In that recertification process, we're regularly reminded of what the job is. And when at a bridge site, we stop, reflect on the work we're doing, and make sure it's done right. Then our work is reviewed, checked, critiqued, and redone until it meets a set of standards that reflect our values. We work to improve processes and methods to assure we hit all the expectations of the client, and more, with excellence.


Value Number 2: "To be Respectful."

Our bridge inspection team has consisted of a diverse group of men and women. Considering the strains of the last few years, it would be easy to find division among us, but we don't. Communication is the single most important aspect of work in my humble opinion. None of us can do what we do alone. And if we don't understand each other, or are afraid to speak to each other, we are all weaker. An inspection team usually consists of two people. And that team spends all day, most evenings, all week long together. Not only are we communicating the technical details of the job, by nature, but we're also learning about each other as human beings. We're often sharing experiences beyond the duties of the job and developing friendships that would have never formed in a different setting. Our primary client has been the North Carolina Department of Transportation. But our inspection services have touched the lives of bridge and building owners in multiple states. That doesn't come through division or fits of frustration. It comes through healthy relationships within the inspection teams, and with the client.

Value Number 3: "To Work Passionately."

I've been a bridge engineer for 20 years, and I am like a lot of bridge engineers I know. We're an odd bunch. Bridge engineering is a relatively small specialty among not just civil engineering, but structural engineering. Most structural engineers design buildings simply because there's more of them. For an engineer to choose bridge engineering, they're turning away from most of the opportunities within this profession. So, you get a very unique and passionate group of individuals. For me, I decided in high school I wanted to be a bridge engineer and stayed focused like a laser beam ever since. That was 1994. And my story is like others. We take our families to bridges across the country, whether they like it or not. And when most of our friends learn some obscure detail about bridges, they quickly turn to us with enthusiasm as if they found some bit of treasure, because they know our passion. Another example of passion for engineers is plagiarism. (Follow me to the end with this one.) There's no greater form of flattery to express to an engineer than to replicate their work. We love to find new and creative ways to achieve our goals. And when someone likes our work so much that they replicate it, it makes us proud. Some say engineers are too technical to be creative. That is a myth! Engineers are some of the most creative people out there, but their creativity is hidden in a series of calculations or within structural details nobody notices, usually because they did their work right.


Value Number 4: "To be Team Players."

Our bridge inspection teams come from five offices in two states. We have a variety of technical backgrounds, personal histories, cultural backgrounds, and life experiences that bring a broad perspective to the work we do. We truly reflect the sentiment that we are "One V&M." I give a lot of details about relationships in the description for Value Number 2 above. But those same principles apply here as well. Aside from the improvements to the quality of the work, a healthy team is a safe team. We often work on the side of the road, whether it be a jam-packed interstate, or under a snake ridden bridge in the middle of nowhere. Working alone is dangerous. We need each other to look for the dangers of the highway and the environment.


Value Number 5: "To be Good Citizens."

As I mentioned above, engineers are often passionate and creative people. It's natural for that passion to spill over into our personal lives, and in our worldview beyond ourselves. Many of us serve in our churches, Homeowners Associations, community groups, and we do our best to assure our behavior betters the communities we live in, and our children grow into healthy adults. Among our three primary inspection teams, there are 17 children being raised. V&M is fortunate enough to have a leadership team that values families and a healthy life outside the office. I've heard countless times to put my family before my job, and even been told on occasion to "stop working and go home." It's easy for passion to get a hold of our minds and forget the bigger picture beyond the office. And it's nice when a manager gives that reminder, supporting good citizenship.

To wrap this up, I want to say that I love what I do for a living. Every inspection trip is a new adventure, and it serves a valuable role in our American way of life. I'm often embarrassed to say that since leaving the Washington State Department of Transportation in 2015 (WSDOT), I've struggled to find my place in North Carolina. At 18 years old I imagined I'd retire from WSDOT old a grey. Since coming to North Carolina in 2015 I've had four jobs in five years as I've failed to find security and peace in these various employers. In April 2019 I stumbled on this latest adventure at V&M and I'm not going anywhere, even if they make me. I'll camp in the parking lot if I have to if that layoff notice comes. It often sounds cliche to say that at "this employer" things are different. With all of the job changes I've had, I can say that with confidence. I've seen V&M live our values, and the bridge inspection team I am a part of has been a real joy to be in (and the bridge design team too).

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