Bird's-Eye View: Brenda Hacker builds Greater Madison from the top down

Brenda Hacker doesn’t drive, bike, or walk to her office. She climbs.

The 44-year-old heavy-equipment operator for J.H. Findorff & Sons Inc. gets her cardiovascular workout each morning as she ascends to her capsule, 220 feet in the sky.

The tower crane operator starts her days at 7 a.m. She is allowed 30 minutes of “grease time” on the way up, performing basic maintenance such as greasing the machine and checking bulbs, bolts, brakes, and the machine’s hoist. She carefully scans the lattice frame, looking for cracks or anything else that might appear abnormal.

Getting to the top means scaling a multitude of angled ladders and landings. Unharnessed, Hacker makes her way up to the very top platform, where she opens a hatch under her feet and climbs down inside. If all goes well, she will be in this perch, high above the city’s skyline, until her shift ends at 3:30.

To the best of Hacker’s knowledge, she is one of only a few female tower crane operators in the country, and she’s been in the construction field since she was 23 years old.

She wishes now that she had pursued the job right out of high school. Instead, she attended UW-Milwaukee, thinking she wanted to be a K-8 schoolteacher. But her fascination with the fluidity of the cranes operating outside her classroom windows convinced her to switch to a “higher” calling.

Peaceful perch

Hacker’s aerial office includes a small shelf above her seating area, where she can place a purse or bag lunch. The views are breathtaking. “I can see the sunrise and the sunset, but if I see the sunset, it means a really long day,” she laughs.

The cab sits underneath the jib — the long, horizontal bar at the top of the crane. It actually leans backwards somewhat, she says, because all the counterweight is on the counterjib behind her.

As she sits inside the cab, two joysticks and a two-way radio are her only connection to the workers below. “I can see completely from my shoulders forward,” she explains, “and below my feet,” through a glass floor. A window behind allows her to keep an eye on any other crane that may be in the area.

“If the towers are close, I could actually catch [the other’s] hoist line with my counterjib,” she explains. “The rule is, look before you swing.”

Seems like a good rule.

Workers await a bucket of concrete as they form walls on the 11th floor of The Hub.

Hacker and an army of construction workers are building The Hub, a 12-story luxury apartment building that will have a stepped-back design, with lower-level retail on State Street and the high-rise behind. But the individual project doesn’t matter to Hacker — whether it’s The Hub, the Edgewater, or Epic. Her job is to deliver the goods.

This is a particularly sunny and breezy day in downtown Madison, and the project crew below is pouring columns and walls. “We’re on the 11th floor right now,” Hacker explains. Using the joystick, she hooks the hoist rope to a bucket that’s lowered down to a waiting concrete truck on Gilman Street. The ground crew fills the bucket with concrete and Hacker hoists it to the 11th floor, where the bottom drops out and an 11th-floor crew directs the concrete where it needs to go. It is precision work.

As a building goes up, the crane’s work space decreases. At some point, Hacker is no longer able to see where she is dropping things. “When you’re picking in the blind, you’re completely dependent on whoever’s on the radio giving you signals because you may be dropping behind the building.”

It’s surprisingly quiet in the cab, away from most motors and street noise. Hacker moves the joysticks expertly. The left one controls the swing motion and runs a trolley that moves back and forth along the jib. The right joystick hoists the loads.

“With these loads, you can’t really drop anything,” Hacker assures. “You can come down too fast, but there’s no free fall.” There are four steps that must be followed, she explains, with step one being the slowest and step four being the fastest. “When you’re setting a load, you back it off and reverse your steps.”

When the crane needs to swing from side to side, things get a bit more complicated. “To stop, you have to counter-swing,” she says. “If you’re coming around to the left, you actually move right with the joystick, then back off.”

It’s all about recognizing the crane’s idiosyncrasies.

Weathering heights

Wind is constant at this height, but particularly windy days can be challenging. “[The crane] definitely moves when it’s windy, but it’s a slow, rolling ship,” she says. “You want it to move, to weathervane. You don’t want it to be completely rigid.”

A brake on the joystick secures the crane in place while it handles loads, because as the jib moves side to side, the machine ebbs and twists. Hacker estimates the heaviest load she’s hoisted, a placer boom, weighed about 14,000 pounds.

She constantly communicates with the crew members below, who anxiously wait for her to pick up their loads (i.e., to make her picks). The trick is to prioritize who gets what first, and to keep things moving.

“Masons have perishable goods, mud, and mortar. That has to come before other things, but sometimes I don’t get the order right,” she laughs.



She often knows a day before when loads will arrive. Whether concrete, masonry, heating and air conditioning, or electrical, the equipment needs to be lifted up to the floors. Concrete is delivered at a specific time, so the forms that it’s poured into must be in place before it arrives, and the rebar cages must be set.

The previous week, another crane broke down, doubling her workload. “It was crazy,” she said. “Dennis calls for two picks, but before I get done with those, Pete calls. He’s got three picks. Then the subcontractors call; they have a truck. Before I finish with Pete, the ironworkers call. It’s hard to prioritize sometimes,” she admits.

But working with the crews below is also one of Hacker’s favorite parts of the job, she says. Her least favorite part is when storms approach. “When there’s a lot of lightning and you have a storm coming in, there’s not a lot of time to get out,” she says. “Typically, by the time you see lightning, it’s too late.”

Sometimes, she just has to tell the ground-based crews that enough is enough. “It’s hard to tell the guys no, but safety comes first.” In those cases, her word is final.

Hacker works year-round, and she notes that winter does have its pros and cons. She can stay toasty in her heated cab, but making the trek up or down the ladders when they’re coated with freezing rain or ice is no picnic. “There’s no way to get around it,” she says with a shrug.

An employee of Findorff for 15 years, Hacker is a member of the Operating Engineers Union Local 139 and is trained to run any number of crane types, including rough terrain cranes, or her favorite, lattice boom crawlers. Operators are typically assigned to a machine for a specific amount of time. She expects to be on this job for a couple more months.

“I could be running a forklift if that’s what they need me to do,” she says.

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