An urgent call comes in.
“I understand,” Bill Moeller says. “We’ll be right there.”
Moeller and his team suit up and within minutes they’re rappelling down the face of a massive concrete structure hundreds of feet above the river.
That’s how Moeller’s job sounds, anyway, to someone who spends most of the day behind a desk.
In reality, though, it’s much more Captain Safety than Captain America.
Moeller, the senior structural engineer at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District, leads a team of nine engineers who travel around the country to inspect the Corps of Engineers’ more than 150 structures while dangling from a rope hundreds of feet up.
Last month, Moeller and three other members of the St. Louis District’s Structural Rope Access Inspection Team tackled J. Strom Thurmond Dam’s 23 Tainter gates for a hydraulic steel structures inspection, or HSS.
“We use rope access because it’s a lot more efficient than the old techniques, where we used cranes, scaffolding or man-buckets,” Moeller said.
USACE HSS regulations require engineers to be within arm’s reach of the fixtures they inspect. Moeller said they’re looking for any structural deficiencies on the gate like cracks, weld quality and any deformations of the structural members on the gate.
While on the rope at dizzying heights, they’re so calm they might as well have been processing spreadsheets.
Moeller and his team are members of the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians, or SPRAT, which stresses safety, education and regulatory support for these engineers with a “higher calling.”
With no prior experience, engineers can qualify Level I SPRAT after just one week of training.
Moeller’s team ranged from one to 16 years of experience, but also had expert support from Doug Stephenson, a contractor with Vertical Consult.
Stephenson brought several keg buckets of extra rope, which he pre-staged and successively repositioned as the team methodically completed each gate.
He also brought a wealth of experience. As a Level III SPRAT (the highest), he’s trained to conduct on-rope rescues in the event of an emergency.
After establishing a rhythm on the first day, the team averaged five to six gates per day.
“The physical activity is the hardest part of the job,” said team member Justin Litteken, USACE St. Louis District. “Sometimes it’s hot, sometimes it’s snowing.”
During Thurmond’s weeklong inspection the team had to contend with 80-90 degree heat and even worked in the rain. When the thunderstorms got too intense, they sought shelter under the gates while they waited for it to pass.
As the St. Louis District team is one of the largest in USACE that conducts these inspections, their travel schedule is as grueling as their work days. This summer and autumn they averaged one inspection every two weeks.
When they’re not conducting assessments for dams in other districts, they’re inspecting the locks, gates and service bridges in the St. Louis District, and performing their regular duties as structural engineers.
The team said about 30-40% of their job is spent conducting these types of inspections around the country.
A few months ago they scaled the sheer face of the Dworshak Dam (near Orofino, Idaho) which, at 717 feet, is the third tallest dam in the country. (For a point of reference, the Hoover Dam is only 9 feet taller. Thurmond Dam is a mere 200 feet tall).
“You’re so busy with your gear and the inspection that you don’t realize you’re that high,” said Ariel Marrero Irizarry, USACE St. Louis District, who is still in his first year as a rope access technician.
At some point (say after 100 feet?), height is irrelevant because the result of the fall is the same. Still, aren’t they ever afraid of heights?
“Can’t be,” Litteken said.
~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office
Follow the USACE Rope Access Team on Instagram here.