Picture this: A barge loaded with a crane on the York River approaches the George P. Coleman Bridge, the 3,750-foot-long steel behemoth spanning from Gloucester to Yorktown.
As the barge approaches, it requests the double swing span bridge open to allow the tall crane to pass. As the bridge opens and the barge begins to move upriver, it slams into the side of the bridge. To make the situation more critical, the sole bridge operator at the top of the bridge suffers a heart attack.
The bridge is open, a helicopter cannot land on the open bridge, and a ladder truck cannot reach the bridge house. So, how do firefighters reach the bridge tender?
They use a boat and climb from the bottom up.
It’s a fictional situation, but one recently used as an example in a “tabletop” exercise to plan for emergency situations involving the Coleman Bridge, said Jeffery Payne, York County Fire and Life Safety assistant chief.
“It all came down to, how do we get that person out of the bridge house?” Payne said, adding the fire-rescue responders were able to talk with other agencies to figure out the best way to respond and get to emergencies.
York County Fire and Life Safety met with about 70 people from VDOT, York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office, Virginia State Police, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Coast Guard and more for the tabletop exercise, Payne said.
Now, York County Fire and Life Safety first responders have prepared response plans ahead of time, instead of figuring it out in the middle of an emergency.
The tour is one of three scheduled this year for York County firefighters assigned to county stations that respond to emergencies on the Coleman Bridge.
On Tuesday, a group of about a dozen firefighter-medics climbed stairs and ladder rungs on the Coleman Bridge — learning about the infrastructure from the bridge tender house on top, down to the water-level concrete caissons.
The four-lane Coleman Bridge is a critical piece of infrastructure in Hampton Roads, carrying nearly one million vehicles each month.
“It allows us to provide mutual aid [for emergencies] and also receive it,” Payne said of the county’s partnership with Gloucester.
Recognizing the importance of responding quickly and in an organized way, York County’s firefighters and medics have started holding in-depth training sessions in conjunction with VDOT to help firefighters know how to navigate the underbelly of the bridge and respond to different incidents.
Those incidents could include a vehicle crash, person jumping off the bridge, an emergency with VDOT employees working on the bridge, boat crash, and more.
Through the training, firefighters also learn how a bridge tender can help them, such as shining spotlights into the water.
From atop the Coleman’s bridge tender house, the highest point on the bridge, passing cars and trucks can be felt in small jolts through the tiled floor.
Between the bridge deck and the caissons — which are original to the first 1952 Coleman Bridge, VDOT Facility Supervisor Robert Hewitt said — there are two large hydraulic engines, gears with teeth 6 inches long more than 30 feet in diameter, Caterpillar emergency generators, and a catwalk spanning the entire underside of the bridge.
Payne, the assistant fire chief in York County, said VDOT and York County have worked together for years to train firefighters for Coleman Bridge emergencies, but that training mostly covered the bridge tender job.
It generally did not cover a full-scale tour off the bridge.
Last year, York County Fire and Life Safety was given an achievement award by the National Association of Counties for its partnership with VDOT, James City County fire and police, Virginia State Police and the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office during the I-64 widening project.
The award recognizes the agencies’ efforts to make the work zone safe and functional, including buying radios to aid interagency communication and routing emergency dispatches through one center instead of multiple.
Payne said the collaboration for the widening project prompted the departments to evaluate other ways to work together, including with the new Coleman Bridge tours.
“It just shows how much easier it is to have those relationships,” Payne said.