Friday, August 03, 2007

A Lesson In Preventative Maintenance

The eight-lane I-35W bridge spanning Minnesota's Twin Cities collapsed into the Mississippi River Wednesday during rush hour. Immediately upon hearing the news, President George W. Bush became gravely concerned about the situation, making certain that for once this wasn't his fault, and that he wasn't going to be blamed by any of the evil Democrats. Once appraised of the situation, he released the official statement, "Not my fault; not my problem. Oh, and, uh, our hearts go out to the victims. God bless Tex — America."

Okay, no, seriously, how do you make fun of an entire bridge collapsing? Really. It's no easy task. You're lucky I got that out of it. No, it really is a scary thing to happen to anyone. I'm sure even the survivors are going to have severe trauma and probably a phobia of bridges for the rest of their lives. It's easy to detatch ourselves from it and look at it cynically from halfway across the country, but it's really a serious tragedy. I mean, four people have already been confirmed dead with 30 more missing and over 79 injured. That right there is like, what, half of Minnesota's total population? That tells you how serious of a problem this is. The media is actually reporting on Minnesota. They're lucky to make the news if the Twins win the World Series. I had to look up how to spell Minnesota. I forgot it was a state for a while there. Don't even ask me what the capital of Minnesota is. Montpellier? Helena? Bob? All it takes to get some attention is a bridge collapsing.

All kidding aside, I know about Minnesota, except that I sometimes confuse it in my mind with Montana, which might explain the above paragraph. It's Iowa's Wisconsin. Each Midwestern state has some other state sitting right on top of it like a sort of deformed hat. Illinois has Wisconsin sitting on top of it, Indiana has Michigan, and Iowa has Minnesota. Ohio doesn't get a state above it, it just gets Ontario, and the rest of the Midwest laugh at it. Ha ha, Ohio, enjoy your Canadians. Okay, now I think I'm seriously out of Minnesota jokes so I can move on to today's important topic, which is bridges.

I knew someone who has a phobia of bridges, which I thought was kind of odd at the time, but whatever. People have phobias over all sorts of stupid shit. They're not supposed to make sense, that's why they're phobias, and phobias are generally odd. I have a phobia of large dogs because I was imprinted by a really mean golden lab when I was a small child. No, seriouly, this was a really mean golden lab, and to a four-year-old, it's like having a bear attacking you. These days, I just like to give all large dogs some chewing gum before they have a chance to bite me, or if I'm all out of chewing gum, I just break their snouts. You can never be too careful.

So I've pretty much overcome my phobia of large dogs, but this guy still has his phobia of bridges. I've always thought it was odd until the other day, when I was driving over the I-74 bridge. This is a double bridge with two lanes going east and two lanes going west. These lanes leave absolutely no margin of error as they're barely wider than the average car, and you have one of two things on either side of you — the car next to you or the side of the bridge. Normally, you don't have time to think about anything when you're going over the bridge because the speed limit is fifty miles per hour, and you just have time to keep your eyes glued to the tail lights of the vehicle in front of you, frequently glancing to the side to make sure the car beside you isn't weaving. If the car next to you starts weaving you start thinking, "Hey, HEY, HEY!! You're either going to sideswipe me or the guide rail, either way you're taking me out!" But you only have a fraction of a second to check your three or nine because you have to keep your eyes locked on those brake lights ahead of you because if they slam on their brakes for any reason you're going to die and take out as many people as you can with you. There is no margin for error on this bridge.

Tuesday, though, one day and some change before the I35W bridge collapsed, I had a lot of time to sit back and reflect on the safety of bridges while I was going over the I74W bridge. One lane of the two was blocked off for some repair work, and traffic had crawled to a nice, relaxed 10 MPH. For, like, a mile and a half or however long that fucking thing is. So I had plenty of time to just sit back and contemplate the safety of the bridge I was on. I'd never really thought about it before because, like I say, you're facing certain death on that bridge; you don't have time to think stray thoughts, but when you're only going 10 MPH with one lane blocked off, you have all the time in the world. Might as well pull out that Hemmingway you've been meaning to read because you could probably finish it before exiting the bridge. So you start to think, "Hm, what all could go horribly wrong while I'm driving across this bridge? Wow, those are the tops of trees down there. This bridge is really tall. And long. How long is this bridge? This is the longest bridge I've ever had to go 10 MPH over. I wonder how old I'll be when I get to the other side." So, yeah, I guess bridges can be a scary thing when you have time to sit back and consider it. So I can't really make fun of a tragic event like an entire bridge collapsing.

An event like this is actually a little annoying, and I can easily get desensitized to it, because of where I work. I see a lot of people every day, and the newspapers are right on the counter, so there's no escaping the inevitable topic of conversation. To each individual, I'm just one person they've talked to about it, and each one believes he or she has the most relevant, profound, and unique perspective on the situation, and every single unique viewpoint I will now list:
  • That's sad about that bridge, isn't it?
So the first few times I'm energized. I have my routine down, and I want to perform in front of my captive audience. Then, after about the fifth person I stop caring so much about repeating my opinion every two minutes. After it drags into the fifth hour, I could not care less and would rather not hear about it anymore, but the opinions keep flooding in, all of which are:
  • That's sad about that bridge, isn't it?
So it's not that I'm heartless or callous that I don't care, it's that you fucking idiots make me this way because upwards of two hundred people have no new, exciting, or relevant perspectives on this event. Seriously, my opinion was probably the most divergent and interesting thing they heard for the rest of the day. Otherwise their conversations on the subject most likely went as thus: "That's sad about that bridge, isn't it?" ". . . Yep . . ."

The governor of Minnesota ordered statewide inspections of their bridges, and on the federal level, inspections of the bridges of every state was recommended, but I don't really know of that will solve the problem. The I35 bridge was inspected every two years, and every year after 2001, and it still collapsed. Not because it hadn't been inspected, but, it turns out, that the results of the inspection were summarily ignored. The inspectors would say, "We found rusted bearings," and whoever is in charge of bridges would determine that they weren't corroded enough to worry about. Then the inspectors would say, "We found stress fractures caused by the corroded bearings," and the people in charge of bridges would determine that the fractures weren't bad enough to worry about. They've even gone as far as to say that a probable contributor to the collapse was all the construction vehicles due to the repaving efforts of the bridge. So they weren't even fixing the actual problems, just making it look prettier, which is the big problem in America right now.

I see this all around me, whether it be the government or corporations, they simply do not want to take the time or spend the money to address problems when they are just problems and fix them before they get worse. It's this concept that was lost to people probably about the time that colleges started realizing that they could generalize leadership and start teaching it in classes out of textbooks as management, it's called preventative maintenance. In business management class terms, it would be known as being proactive instead of reactive. All the time, I identify problems that are easily correctible, like a worn circuit breaker or a dirty compressor, or a chattering relay, but they choose to ignore it until the thing finally breaks and they have to lose whatever it is for a couple of days and spend a lot more money on a replacement item than a smaller amount on a replacement part.

As someone who worked a preventative maintenance dock on aircraft for seven years, I know the value of preventative maintenance. You don't want to let that corroded mounting screw go because it could break off in flight and end up causing a mechanical malfunction that could result in a multi-million-dollar aircraft plummeting into the ground with a crew full of human lives. You don't get a second chance with aircraft. So I identify problems as soon as I spot them so they can be entirely ignored by people who don't care because they don't want to spend the money right now. Who cares about a circuit breaker that keeps popping, right? Well, it's either a worn circuit breaker that's going to cost about two dollars to replace, or it's a short in the wiring that might burn the place down. Of course, why not wait until the store burns down and then pay to replace the entire building instead of just paying an electrician $50 to test the wires? Why worry about replacing a few fractured crossbeams on a bridge; let's wait for the whole thing to collapse and kill several people, injure more, and traumatize many more.

What good is inspecting every bridge in America going to do if the results of the inspections are just going to be ignored, even if they place the bridge at a deficient rating like the I35W bridge was? It's not the inspecting that's the problem, it's finding people who want to spend the money and take the time to deal with the results. I mean, you're never really aware of all the lives you're saving, but when something goes horribly wrong and someone dies, you're forever branded as a villain. Not me; every time an aircraft landed, I could pride myself that I had a hand in saving those people's lives. So if a 50% ineffective rating on a bridge came across my desk, you'd be damned sure the problems wouldn't be ignored because every person who safely crossed that bridge would be one more life that I had a hand in saving. If the bridge collapsed, I wouldn't want the guilt of knowing that I swept a known deficiency under the rug to save a few thousand dollars.

Perhaps that's the problem with a capitalistic society. Through positive reinforcement for money-saving initiatives, people are eventually conditioned in the mindset that saving some faceless, thankless organization a few dollars is somehow worth more than saving possibly thousands of lives. Nothing is more important than saving lives, even those lives that in all likelihood don't deserve saving. Even those lives render the importance of money inconsequential. It's a problem with the modern mindset of America, and it's one that needs to be corrected because otherwise the few people, like me, who value human life over money will always be squelched by those who value money over human life, like Bush.

Not saying Bush caused the bridge to collapse. For once, not even I can say that this was his fault, unless it turns out to actually be an act of terrorism, but come on; look at the man and his policies and tell me he's not using his position to further his own self-interests. Tell me he's in it for the good of America. If you can honestly still believe that, then I have this really cool eight-lane bridge in Minnesota to sell you, and its price just got drastically reduced.

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