Parts of Loudoun Cut Off from Fire Service by Bridge Weight Limits

Firefighting vehicles cannot reach some parts of Loudoun without violating posted weight limits on bridges, and other areas could see firefighters having to take longer alternate routes, the Loudoun County Combined Fire-Rescue Service has warned.

The issue was raised after a Loudoun County deputy pulled over a Philomont tanker truck. According to an Aug. 24 memo to the Board of Supervisors, the tanker—one of the heaviest types of fire apparatus—was headed south along Snickersville Turnpike toward Hibbs Bridge over Beaverdam Creek on June 24 when a deputy flagged it down and warned the crew about the bridge’s post weight limit.

That bridge, a double-arched stone bridge first built in the early 1800s and rehabilitated in 2007, has a posted weight limit of six tons. The tanker truck weighs about 29 tons, according to Loudoun Fire-Rescue.

That led Fire-Rescue System Chief Keith Johnson to issue a directive to responders that they are expected to observe posted bridge limits. According to the memo to supervisors, in follow-up discussions, the Sheriff’s Office indicated it has not issued any directives to “start enforcing” bridge weight limits on Loudoun Fire-Rescue vehicles.

The incident also led system leaders to evaluate the weight restrictions on all the state-owned bridges in Loudoun County, finding 41 bridges in all and to assess simulated response times with those bridges closed.

“It’s been our highest priority for the last several weeks since we became aware of some recent issues,” Johnson told county supervisors at their Sept. 6 meeting. He said the system’s vehicles weigh anywhere from about 8 tons for an ambulance to 36 tons for an aerial ladder.

They found that, while ambulances can reach every part of the county, fire engines, tankers and ladder trucks cannot reach 11 addresses on Dutchmans Creek Road, 11 addresses on Aldie Dam Road and six addresses on Greengarden Road and Sunken Lane. For another 96 addresses, fire engines can reach but the heavier tankers and ladder trucks cannot. And at many others, while firefighting vehicles can get there, to avoid bridge weight limits they must take longer alternate routes.

That work, together with the county Department of Transportation and Capital Infrastructure, is continuing. They are seeking Virginia Department of Transportation exemptions to the bridge weight limits, as well as continuing to gather information to provide to county supervisors and seeking other near-term solutions.

State law does permit a weight limit exception for emergency vehicles—but requires an engineering study on the bridge, and an annual permit for each emergency vehicle that may cross the bridge. County fire-rescue vehicles are sometimes called to travel far outside their first-due area to support other stations responding to bigger emergencies, or to fill in if a call comes while the nearest station is already busy responding to another.

The county transportation department is already working to contract engineers to analyze the bridges for possible exemptions, Johnson said. He also said county staff members are meeting with VDOT staff this week. And county fire-rescue and transportation staff are working with the county’s public information office to keep affected residents informed.

Loudoun Fire-Rescue vehicles have resumed using the Hibbs Bridge. The Virginia Department of Transportation provided documents indicating the bridge is built to “full load capacity,” which fire-rescue staff interpreted to mean 80,000 pounds, the maximum permitted weight for vehicles traveling Virginia roads. Although the state has issued no weight limit exemption for emergency vehicles on the Hibbs Bridge, with the bridge along a major route to reach addresses between Philomont and Aldie and the apparent indication from VDOT that the bridge can take that weight, the fire-rescue system has lifted its own prohibition on crossing the bridge.

The memo also notes there is an unknown number of private bridges in Loudoun that could also pose a concern, and which may not have been evaluated by a structural engineer.

While Loudoun’s historic bridges have only gotten older, firefighting vehicles have gotten significantly bigger and heavier over the years due in large part to new safety and equipment requirements. That has also led to debates in some areas about whether fire departments should buy smaller designs already on the market. In 2018, the National Association of City Transportation Officials and the U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center issued a report on the street safety improvements from using smaller vehicles with similar capabilities, such as are used in Europe and Asia, in urban environments.

4 thoughts on “Parts of Loudoun Cut Off from Fire Service by Bridge Weight Limits

  • 2022-09-12 at 6:36 pm

    Not only can’t the ginormous new trucks Chief Johnson has purchased safely negotiate Loudoun’s rural bridges, rural homes have burned to the ground because the trucks are too fat to negotiate rural drives. But the supersized vehicles also have led Johnson to request parking restrictions in Eastern Loudoun because they can’t negotiate those streets either. This would have seemed to be a pretty basic task for a fire/rescue chief: can the equipment we desire serve the citizens who are paying for it? Can we do a cost-benefit assessment of purchasing some smaller engines (or not having sold them to other jurisdictions?) vs. rebuilding the entire rural infrastructure (and forcing all rural property owners at their own expense to widen drives, gates, and provide turnarounds for the giant vehicles that The Chief says we need. This is an opportunity for the BOS to put its collective foot down to save costs.

    • 2022-09-15 at 10:04 am

      Those large “new” apparatus have been the same size for the past 15 years, which I believe predates the past 2 chiefs.

  • 2022-09-12 at 6:44 pm

    And, name one spot in rural Loudoun where a hook and ladder truck might conceivably be needed. (Certainly not on Route 15, which was Supervisor Umstattd’s argument for 10-foot paved shoulders (broader than on Route 7), where the tallest building is Farmer John’s Market bank barn–which the widening will likely destroy. This does seem to be all about laying down the taxpayer-funded infrastructure to facilitate the suburbanization of the rural area.

    • 2022-09-15 at 10:07 am

      Any 2 story home needs ladders. Engines only carry 2. Trucks are spaced out and serves a diverse area. They have specialized roles and are needed on house fires. The one ladder truck that operates out of a primarily rural area should be smaller, but that’s a volunteer station and truck and they can do whatever they want, which they do.

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