By Abigail Goldring, Media Relations Staff
It’s 7:58 a.m. on a February Friday when Holland Tunnel Crew Chief Robert Drako’s radio buzzes: “Holland Tunnel to the controller: vehicle fire in Zone 3. Jersey Garage stand by.”
Drako’s adrenaline kicks into high gear. He rushes from the first floor of the nearby Holland Tunnel administrative building in Jersey City to the adjoining garage. There, he hastily pulls on firefighting gear and jumps in the wrecker, a truck fully equipped with firefighting and towing capabilities but small enough to turn fully around inside the tunnel.
Traffic is already building on both the New Jersey and New York sides. Ventilation fans are activated, blowing thick smoke away from the scene. But that means Drako and his partner, driving against traffic, must drive directly into the smoke. Sixty seconds later, they have arrived at the scene. The whole process – from radio notification to the moment the fire is out – takes only 15 minutes. Finally, Drako tows the truck from the tunnel, returning to the garage to await another call.
“There are some days when you get to sit down and have your breakfast, your lunch, and your breaks, and then there are other days where you’re busy straight through breakfast, straight through lunch, and before you know it, you’re going home,” Drako said. “Every day is different, and that’s what I love about this job.”
Drako is the lead tunnel and bridge agent (TBA) on the tunnel’s New Jersey side, earning him the title of crew chief, and one of 176 Port Authority TBAs overall. A typical tour starts at 6 a.m. with a report on the outgoing crew chief on what happened in the previous tour. An hour later, Drako joins his fellow TBAs for roll call, team assignments and updates, followed by vehicle and equipment inspection. By 8 a.m., he is prepared for incoming calls.
Much of his day is spent tending to disabled vehicles – flat tires, empty gas tanks and broken axles, the kinds of common activity that often interrupt the easy flow of tunnel traffic. Should an emergency ensue, Drako is ready. “One thing that people don’t understand about us is the extensive amount of training we have to go through. I’ve completed 22 training classes so far – everything from blood-born pathogens, to vehicle extrication, to weapons of mass destruction,” he said.
Holland Tunnel TBAs respond to 2,200 incidents every year, a crucial force in maintaining and protecting the Port Authority’s tunnel and bridge operations. “TBAs are an extremely versatile and highly skilled group of employees that contribute in major ways to help us meet our agency priorities,” said Holland Tunnel General Manager Ricky Ramirez. “They are critical to the facility’s safety, security, traffic management and overall customer experience.”
Drako arrived at the Port Authority with firefighting and Emergency Medical Service (EMS) experience, serving as a volunteer firefighter and EMS worker in his New Jersey town of Spotswood. A friend from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) suggested he apply for a TBA position after graduation from college, since it involved firefighting. Drako doubted he’d get the position, but the call came just as he was about to leave for a cruise.
He remembers asking if he could start with the Port Authority after he returned, and the answer was a resounding no. So he decided to skip the cruise and take the job; he soon realized that he made the right call. “I felt like an idiot for almost passing this up,” he remembers.
“Robert is very dedicated and his work ethic is second to none,” Holland Tunnel Operations Manager Jenny De La Cruz said. “His can-do and positive attitude sets the tone in the garage.”
Drako says he loves the people he works with and the constant opportunities to gain new skills.
“Thirty years from now, you can come back and I’ll be right here,” he said. “The end-all mission is getting traffic flowing and keeping people safe, so I’ll do whatever I have to do to make that happen.”