Ever wonder what’s it like to be suspended hundreds of feet in the air with a rope harness?
“It’s exhilarating – unlike any other feeling,” said Adrian Kollias, a Structural Engineer and Team Leader for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Philadelphia District.
That experience is all in a day’s work for a team of engineers who conduct bridge inspections and evaluations for USACE.
The Bridge Inspection & Evaluation Center of Expertise, based in Philadelphia, consists of 15 engineers who provide design and evaluation services, ten of whom are also rope-access certified technicians.
In addition to inspecting and evaluating bridges and other hydraulic steel structures for USACE Districts across the country, the RCX team has also done work overseas and for other federal clients, including the Navy, Air Force, Department of Transportation, and Department of Energy.
The inspection is the first step in the overall maintenance process.
“With an existing bridge or structure, the most important part of maintenance is the inspection program because that’s where you identify problems,” said Kollias. “If you don’t know where the problems are, you can’t address them.”
Kollias explained that the team also provides design services and engineering support as repairs are made to structures.
To serve on the team, engineers undergo intense training, including a two-week session on bridges and structures as well as a one-week course on rope access. During rope access training, participants learn how to use equipment, tie knots, and practice techniques for climbing. Team members also participate in periodic refresher courses.
Structural Engineer Joseph Gonglik recently completed rope-access training. He said serving on the rope-access inspection team provides opportunities to learn about a wide variety of structures and contribute to an important mission.
“It means a lot to be able to participate in the inspections of our bridges, hydraulic steel structures, and flood control projects,” said Gonglik. “These are structures that people use every day and can be taken for granted. It's our job to make sure these structures are in good condition and functioning as intended so we can all continue to go about our daily business without a second thought.”
The RCX traces its roots to 1995 when a small team was established to inspect the Philadelphia District’s tower access bridges at its dams in Pennsylvania as well as bridges at Fort Dix, N.J. and in the Kansas City District. The team and its mission have evolved and expanded in the two decades since.
“The growth of this team has been incredible,” said Cameron Chasten, Chief of the Bridge Inspection RCX and Structures Branch in Philadelphia. “We started out with three structural engineers. Now we have 15 and the type of work we do has changed over the years as well.”
Chasten pointed to several key milestones that have helped shape the team’s mission. In 2005, the team developed rope access capability and began inspecting the Philadelphia District’s five high-level highway bridges across the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. In 2008, the North Atlantic Division Commander, then Brig. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, designated the team a Regional Center of Expertise for Bridge Inspection and Evaluation. And in 2011, the Omaha District tasked the team to inspect tainter gates on dams following the historic floods along the Missouri River.
These developments led to substantial increases in work across the country. In recent years, the Philadelphia-based team has helped build national capacity by training Vicksburg and Tulsa District personnel on rope-access techniques. And as other Districts have increased their inspection capabilities, the team has been able to shift more of its focus and workload to providing design services.
Kollias has served with the team since the beginning. One of the things he enjoys is how it provides a balance between hands-on field work and engineering back in the office.
“It’s good to be able to work in both elements – in an office setting and in the field. It’s all part of being a well-rounded engineer,” he said.