Flagger cites ‘right amount of assertiveness’ as key to job
It’s no secret that traffic on the truck route, officially Washington State Highway 543 (SR543) between exit 275 on I-5 and the Pacific Highway truck crossing, gets a little crazy at times.
Mix in a $30 million renovation project that involves up to 100 workers at one time plus numerous other work vehicles, cranes, drills, sweepers, dump trucks and so on and things can go from interesting to chaotic unless all that traffic is supervised, not only to get work done while moving traffic through the area but to keep everyone safe.
That’s up to Dagmar DeVere, the traffic control supervisor for this three-year project.
When gazing down on the work area from the high ground beside the project’s parking lot off C Street she’s like an air traffic controller at a busy hub, always attentive, occasionally barking orders into a hand-held radio to one of her 14 flaggers or hearing from the project’s over-all boss, Tony Anderson, or one of the subcontracting foremen.
“It’s like a dance when it works right, when we’re in the zone,” said DeVere, 42, “and mostly it does.”
Her only real problems come from drivers who won’t follow instructions, she continued, “because the only way for everyone to get through the area safely and as quickly as possible is to be patient, stay in line, anticipate some delay and above all follow the flagger’s directions.”
Most do, although DeVere has her share of war stories, of vehicles brushing or even charging at flaggers, of getting yelled at by drivers who don’t understand why they’re being held up or incidents arising when drivers take things into their own hands.
A recent incident began
with a woman driving a motorized wheelchair west on
H Street in the road against oncoming traffic toward
543 as it was being prepared for paving over trenches
dug for utility crossings.
Flaggers had traffic down to one alternating lane and flowing smoothly until the wheelchair driver arrived, and in addition to being in the wrong lane refused to allow workers to assist her or follow the flagger’s instructions until she found herself blocked by trenches. DeVere found a piece of steel plate to serve as a bridge and finally got her through.
By this time traffic was backed up in all four directions, which led an impatient truck driver at Boblett and 543 to try to drive around the back-up by going through Yorky’s parking lot despite a flagger’s repeated orders to wait in position.
“He ended up driving over a car that was trying to sneak around him, and stuck halfway out into traffic until the cops finally got the two untangled.
“All that lady was trying
to do was go back home from the grocery store, but
two drivers not following instructions led to a major
delay for everyone,” DeVere said, “including
the construction project.”
Though all but four of the flaggers on this project are experienced, a lot of DeVere’s work involves continual training and team management. She often works 14 to 16 hour days but limits her teams to 10-hour shifts.
The key to the job, aside from endurance, is the right amount of assertiveness. “You have to be aggressive but also ready to back off when you find a way to work things out,” she said.
Flaggers make more than $20 per hour and must have a basic credential from a day-long class taught at most community colleges. Supervisors have an intense three-day workshop followed by a written, closed-book test.
“It may sound like a gravy train but, believe me, you earn every cent,” DeVere said.
Originally, construction plans called for shutting down the trucks-only northbound lane in July, reducing 543 temporarily to just one lane each way.
Imco Construction’s project manager Tony Anderson said “we’ve tried to delay doing that as long as possible because once that happens it will really back things up, and with summer tourist traffic that wouldn’t be a good situation.”
Eventually the lane reduction will have to be done, he said, in order to have room to drill holes to serve as molds for the 1,100 piling 50 to 70 feet long that when lined up will make retaining walls on either side of the road.The road bed will be lowered nearly 30 feet when excavated out between the retaining walls.
The method is called secant wall construction, and is the largest project of its type in the state.
The cages, just a little smaller and nearly as long as the piling, are built on-site and involve stretching a two-foot high coil of inch-thick re-bar out 50 to 70 feet like a toy slinky, putting it under considerable tension.
“Were one of those to be dropped it could literally explode. We’ve only had one begin to come undone,” said Washington State Department of Transportation inspector Eric Johnson, “and it was already well enough down in the hole that nothing much happened, but that’s a good example of how following the flagger’s instructions keeps everyone safe.”