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Fire Crews Work Around Old Bridges During South Carolina Survey

Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio

When bridges get their weight limits dropped, emergency crews need to take notice. That’s particularly true with fire companies.

“Our ladder truck weighs nearly 40 tons,” says Brad Hall, assistant director of operations for the Spartanburg Fire Department. “It’s a lot of weight on a bridge like this.”

Actually, it’s now officially too much weight on a bridge like this – the one on Heywood Avenue, spanning Lawson’s Fork Creek– for which the South Carolina Department of Transportation has just reset the weight limit to a maximum of 31 tons for emergency vehicles.

What if there’s a fire on the other side of this bridge? Find another way to get there. SCDOT grants no waivers in an emergency, in large part because they don’t want a second emergency involving a collapsed bridge.

This leaves fire companies with the task of finding alternative routes to emergencies, while not significantly increasing response times. That’s all right for Hall, who says, “fire departments are good at being creative.”

Spartanburg FD, he says, has a few routes that don’t involve this bridge. He’s not worried about getting anywhere in the city and the department has five stations for coverage. It also has good relationships with neighboring companies that can come in to assist if need be.

Hall would be concerned if SCDOT dropped the weight limit on the bridge on East Main Street. That, he

Credit Scott Morgan / South Carolina Public Radio
South Carolina Public Radio
Brad Hall amid the new weight limit signs at Lawson's Fork Creek.

says, would be “like a quarter of the city being cut off. We’d really have to go a long way around.”

For the moment, SCDOT doesn’t have plans to alter the weight limit on the East Main Street bridge. The main reason it is looking at the one crossing Lawson’s Fork Creek is because of its age, which is almost 75 years.

The bridge was built in 1947, at a time when heavy trucks (mainly tractor trailers) didn’t really exist. But thousands of crossings by increasingly heavier commercial vehicles can and does take a toll on bridges over time, says SCDOT spokesman Pete Poore.

So SCDOT is not lowering load limits on bridges for the fun of it. But neither, Poore says, is it insensitive to the concerns of emergency agencies. In fact, he encourages any emergency services administrators who have issues with their communities’ bridges to contact SCDOT to see what could be worked out.

According to SCDOT, there are 9,370 publicly owned bridges in the state, in the FHWA survey. SCDOT owns and maintains 8,431 of those bridges (meaning 939 are locally owned), and about 400 bridges still need to be surveyed or inspected.

As of the time this story was published, SCDOT was calculating the number of bridges that have had their weight limits lowered. Some are being addressed not for the effects of decades of heavy-vehicle traffic, but because of the intense weather South Carolina has seen in the past half-decade.

“Starting in 2015 with the thousand-year flood,” says Darren Player, director of Lancaster County Fire and Rescue, “whole trees on the banks of the creeks … in essence become spears when those floodwaters are coming down those creeks. And, of course, the obstacle is always the bridge and its pylons.”

Some of those pylons are concrete and some are wood, but Player says all of them have taken shots from hurricanes Matthew, Irma, Florence, and Dorian, in successive years. That’s weakened a few bridge structures and caused a few closures. Those, in turn, have caused LCF&R to have to figure out how to get around a still-largely rural county in an emergency.

Like Hall, Player says his agency’s relationships with both SCDOT officials and other emergency services providers are strong and the county’s communications capabilities tight.

That’s a marked step up from where things used to be, Player says. It was only a few years ago that crews on calls in some remote areas of the county were out of radio and even cellphone contact because they were in dead spots.

While that’s changed for the better – and while LCF&R is continuing its upgrades – the issue highlights what is still a potential problem for emergency companies all around South Carolina: How to keep the public safe while the state works to make sure it stays that way.

Scott Morgan covers the Upstate, Piedmont, and Pee Dee for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan and follow South Carolina Public Radio @SCPublicRadio and on Facebook.