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Friday, April 19, 2019

Postcards and tales

Hey guys.

Lots of life changes, that I may or may not go into on here at some point.  We all go through them, we all have drama.  I'm still at my power company job, though, that hasn't changed.  Sometimes I think about this place, and wonder if I've got some more writing in me.  Not quite yet, but I was successful in getting dear old dad, the Smooth Substation Operator, to write me up one of his tales.  He has so many!

This one is an easy one, won't require too much gray matter, but just so you have a chance to get to know the man.  Hopefully he will do a lot more guest articles for us!  So here is where he went when we talked about poor storage of 9 volt batteries.  As a refresher, by the time he retired about 10 years ago, he was the senior all-knowing "oracle" of the substation operations staff, and tended to be the mother hen for everyone in the shop.....

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The 9-volt thing was something that I came across online years ago, about how some loose 9 volt batteries had gotten together in someones kitchen 'junk' drawer, heated up, started a fire, and set the house on fire.  Whatever it was, the article had a couple of 'impressive' pictures.  But the writer's recommendation was to put some kind of tape across the snap contacts.  OK, good idea.  At least his house wasn't a total loss.

But same basic thing.  6 volt lantern batteries, the kind with two coiled-in-a-cone-shape contacts on top.

Each year, winter-coming-on time, I would go through the emergency kits and check / replenish as needed.  Finding the occasional red plastic hand lantern with a run down battery or otherwise dim beam of light, I'd replace the battery.  At some point (the particular event escapes me) I began to pack an extra lantern battery in each bag.

Again, the event escapes me, but somebody told me that there was a smell of hot metal?  hot plastic? coming from one of the bags a day or so after I'd done my yearly check / replenish thing.  I found the bag (hard to miss) and emptied it out.

What I found was a discolored (like when a piece of steel or iron gets too hot and the too-hot area looks like the colors of the rainbow?) clipboard clip.  It was touching the vinyl lining of the emergency bag, and had a couple of melted (from the heat) spots.

What the!?  The 'hot' place on the clip was actually two spots, about an inch and a quarter apart - the 'colors' had blended.  Heat?  Two spots?  I picked up the spare lantern battery - needless to say the 'points' of the cones were also discolored.  OK.  Remembering the thing about the 9 volt batteries, I proceeded to wrap 333 (electrical) tape across the contacts and around the body of the battery.  Problem solved.  I thought.

A couple of months into winter, and we had a snow storm, you know the kind, big sloppy wet flakes landing on tree branches, branches breaking off and falling on the 12.5.  Sometimes they'd bounce off or fall off, one reclose, and everything's fine (lots of those you never find unless one of the callers happened to have seen the flash).

Of course, you're never that lucky all the time.  If the branch lands across the 3-phase and happens to be 'balanced', it will sit there, light up the neighborhood several times until the PCB goes to lockout.  Bottom line, we were busy for a couple of days.

OK, the party is over, everyone has their lights back on, and I have some emergency kits to check.  A lantern in one had been left on when it was dropped back into the bag.  Easy fix, I'll just put the spare in and pack a new spare, right?

No.  The spare was dead.  Huh?  Got the spare out of another kit, put it in and same thing - dead.  Checked them all, and all dead.  They were just fine when I packed them, so I'm scratching my head.

OK, think.  They were all good when they went in, and none of the installed batteries had gone dead (I checked the other lanterns).  What's the common difference here?  The ones in the lanterns, of course, had no tape, while the spares did.  But 333 is an insulating medium.  Isn't it?  Well, isn't it!

Donning my imaginary Sherlock Holmes hat, I deduced that there was a clue worth pursuing; check out the 333.  Take out the weakest of the still working lantern batteries, check the voltage, write it on the body of the battery, and wrap some tape across the terminals as I had been doing.

The next day I checked the voltage - it had dropped about half a volt.  OK, leave it for a few more days, and I'll check on the last day of my shift.  Down to about 4-1/2 volts.  First day of my next shift I check it  again -  a little over 3 volts.  The voltage on the other lantern batteries had not dropped at all.  Checked it again on the last day of that shift, and it barely moved the needle of the voltmeter.

(Voltmeters with moving needles dates me, wouldn't you say?  Today, we have $3.99 digital multimeters from Harbor Freight.  Ain't science wonderful?)

OK, how do we fix this.  The battery contacts need to be protected / prevented from shorting out against the random piece of meta while they're flopping around in the emergency bags.  Gotta be durable AND dependable.

High-tech fix, coming up!

Find a piece of what I call "shoebox" cardboard, cut it into 3" by 1-1/2" chunks, fold it into an 'L' shape lengthwise, place it across the contacts, and THEN tape it into place.

Never had a problem again for as long as I was with City Light, doing my Senior-Substation-Operator-who-wears-the-hats-of-MANY-jobs thing.

- Smooth Substation Operator

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And there you have it.  Honest to goodness, a material intended to INSULATE actually CONDUCTS!  I mean, just a little.... but still!

If you're still reading, drop me a note, would love to know if anyone is still out there.  Stay safe!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Seasons

It's been a good long time since I've been on here.

Things at my fire agency went absolutely to crap a couple of years ago after a change in leadership.  That's why the fire stories dried up.  No joy in writing about them any more.

Due to the changing tides of volunteerism, the agency ended up hiring more full time personnel several years ago. Management did not do a good job managing the culture shock.

In an established department, you've got seasoned veterans who kick the new guys in the teeth as often as necessary until they learn to respect the job and the agency's history.  Problem was, management basically established that the new paid guys were essentially "officers", even though most weren't.

Being young and full of bravado and feeling the recentism from being fresh out of school and knowing everything, they failed to respect our older volunteer personnel, who had legitimately earned their commissions.  You see, our volunteer officers were not "elected", they were always appointed after meeting fairly strict training requirements.

On paper, paid or volunteer was not supposed to matter.  Firefighters were firefighters, and officers were officers, period.

So, following fire service tradition going back centuries, our volunteer officers began kicking the new paid guys in the teeth when they were dickheads or disrespectful.  The new guys whined, and the new management backed them up, undermining our agency's entire history and culture, marginalizing our volunteer officers.  Unsurprisingly, our entire base of volunteer officers all left within a single year.

And it just went to hell from there.

Eventually I think the Chief started to figure it out, but it was far too late to repair the damage.  The new guys got their own elected officials in office over the Chief, and then the Chief was fired.  The Deputy Chief was promoted to interim Chief, with no desire to hold the job permanently.  The electeds, totally out of control by now and micromanaging everything, drove the Deputy nuts.  In June of 2015 he announced his retirement effective at the end of the year.  By October, they drove him so batshit crazy he gave his minimum two weeks notice and bailed, unable to stand them even four extra weeks.  That pretty much says it all.

Anyway, with the new management in place, volunteers are being phased out.  On paper, they still exist, but as a mere show.  They get used as abused interns, never allowed to think for themselves and never utilized in a way that promotes their growth within.  Turnover is absurdly high, by design in my opinion, to justify the inevitable ending of the program entirely.  Once upon a time the volunteers were trained to be autonomous, to be community-oriented, to know when to go grab a rig, to be trained enough to respond directly to an emergency scene and size things up or make an EMS intervention, and appropriately meld into the ICS structure when more resources arrived.  No longer, as today none of the volunteers can work without direct career member supervision.  I guess this is partly because all the volunteers who had more training than the paid guys are all gone now.

Also, now the agency only responds from two of its five stations.  They closed and sold a sixth one - without telling the residents in that area beforehand - and are using that money to buy an unnecessarily fancy new fire engine.  There are rigs sitting in the other three stations that literally have responded to zero incidents in over two years.  Zero incidents.  The buildings are abandoned, dusty, leaky ceilings unrepaired, falling apart, with trucks mostly stripped of equipment but holding ceremonial spots for fire insurance rating purposes.  Those stations are mere storage facilities now.  Just a few years ago we would turn out rigs from all of our stations for a structure fire, but those days are over.  The agency still has four tankers, but is lucky to turn out even one for a structure fire because there's no one left to drive them, instead relying on mutual aid for water.  Classy.  In fact, the last few fires, water tankers had to be called from as far as over 20 miles away.  Neighbor agencies are already tiring of carrying this one, but the long term agenda appears to be merger into the neighbor city, and liquidation, leaving the rural people hostage to the city's whims.  Because once your agency has been gutted and you have no assets, no money, and no volunteers, how do you restart from scratch if you don't like what the city is offering?

Bear in mind this isn't a tired retread of the paid vs. vollie debate.  This was the second combo fire agency I've worked at.  I've worked alongside paid guys with lots more training than me, and also alongside paid guys whose hand I needed to hold at many calls.  We're all supposed to be on the same team.  This story is one of too many 2-20 hotheads coming in and no one there to teach them respect.  When they spend their days drawing logos with phrases like "Station 54 - The Filthy Few" for a house that runs less than 300 calls a year.... give me a break.  They want to be big city jakes, and their insecurities turned too many of them into dicks,  Of course, when they did get called in to one of the bigger neighboring cities and got trampled on by busy companies that actually do stuff, their feelings were hurt, and instead of learning respect and humility, they just doubled down.  No, not paid vs. vollie, but rather a total loss of culture by flooding the roster with empowered hotheads while hamstringing the efforts from those of us who've actually done this for a few years to shape their character.

Anyway, if it wasn't already clear to you by now, I am no longer part of this agency, and retired from the fire service myself about a year ago.  I haven't ruled out a return in some sort of rehab/canteen capacity with another agency, but I'm kind of burned out by being treated like whale shit on my way out after a 21-year career.  Just not feeling it any more, and that is genuinely sad.

I still work for the power company though.  Always neat things going on there.

Maybe I'll pick this blog up again, maybe not.  But that's where things are today.

Keep the faith, and stay safe out there.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...

It started out small enough, and by the time the first scout unit arrived at the request of the Forest Service, it was still only about 10'x30'.  Unfortunately, the scout unit wasn't a suppression unit, and the Forest Service didn't have resources nearby.

The scout unit thought they could hold it if only they had water, but it was a 20-30 minute response for something that could throw water.  It was worth a shot, and they called in some help.  We got caught up in that request as well.

Things didn't quite pan out as hoped despite best intentions, and it officially became a crapstorm after the USFS finally did arrive to help and promptly tumbled one of their engines down an embankment and into the path of the fire. At least no one was in it, thank goodness.

By the time I arrived with others from my agency, the unnecessary frenzied tone set by the lost engine was in full effect, and there were also at least two ICs.  We parked our rigs and advised up the chain that we were going to remain in staging until there was only one IC.  That took about 20 minutes to get resolved.

When Squad 51 finally got an assignment from an IC that we were willing to listen to, it was to patrol the fire line established on an access road, where the fire had already burned.  Warning bells are going off in my head, because we're uphill of the fire, and the initial burn did not consume all the fuels.  USFS guys are with us on the line, and I foolishly allowed things to proceed assuming the experts wouldn't do this if there was cause for concern.  The rotor was making drops on the far side of the burn, the active front, but lots of smoke is still rolling up the hill and over our location.

Sure as hell though, a little wind shift pushes the fire around a bit, and then a large slash pile lit off just down the road below our rigs.  25' flames are blowing across the road and into the green between us and our escape route.  Every time the wind blows the heated smoke at us, we have to lean into the bottom of the drainage ditch on the access road to get air.  Eyes and lungs burning.  This is genuinely frightening, been quite a while since I had a true pucker moment like this.

About five years ago, I allowed the very same thing to happen.  Got assigned uphill of a fire that sure as hell came up the hill.  Drop and run was the order, and although we lost several hundred feet of hose we were lucky enough to get the rigs and people out without injury.  I said at the time, after that legit scare, that I wouldn't let it happen to me again.

And here I am, eyes burning and tearing up, rubbing them, trying to see so I can drive my rig out during a momentary lapse in the wind when the fire isn't blowing across the road.  If not for the rotor being diverted to drop water on the fire near the road by us, the outcome might have been different.

I try to keep the language clean here, but in this case I think it is warranted to say fuck that noise, never again!  It is trees and grass, we weren't even protecting any nearby houses.  Not worth it by any stretch of the imagination.  What the hell were we ever even given that assignment for, with such high risk and negligible value in holding that line with limited resources?

Don't be afraid to question orders. The 10 & 18 are there for damned good reasons and paid for with many lives.  We all owe it to those that paid the price to heed their lessons.  Fooled me twice, shame on me.  Never again.

Stay safe out there.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Lesson Learned, Lesson Passed On

I was riding with Gary in 579 when we got a call for arcing wires near downtown.  It got slightly more interesting when the dispatcher told us the feeder breaker had operated once and then closed again, so something more than a little spit and pop.  The dispatcher put the breaker in non-auto so if it tripped again it would not keep reclosing into a problem.

We were sort of out of position without many guys working, so it would be a bit of a delay.  Then I heard Engine 1 from Very Big City go en route, so someone had called 911 undoubtedly frightened by the show.

As we were rolling along, the tickets were rolling in, and I was pulling them up on the MDC to get some hints.  Our phone reps are uncomfortable paraphrasing much because of past incidents where they edited something important out, so they pretty much type into the trouble tickets what they hear on the phone.

Customer states lives right near substation, heard several loud booms in that direction and lights flickered, still have power.

Power line arcing on north side of 5th between Sampson and Flannery, looks like trying to catch on fire now.

Lines in front of this address are making very weird noises.

(I love those kinds of tickets, "weird noises", good stuff.)

Customer heard several very loud booms and saw two blinks, lights still on.

And just as we were getting close, the dispatcher called to advise the breaker had operated again and the circuit was out.  Darn.  Was hoping to see something good!

So we pulled up, and Engine 1 had closed the block down, which was the right call while it was burning up.  Now that the circuit is dead, not much for serious hazards, and we told them they could open the road and take their cones, thanks for coming out.  Turned out we had an overhead primary switch that burned pretty good until it melted off a jumper, which then fell into the next phase below and blew the circuit.  The glass was all carboned up and lots of charring on the pole, with some burnt debris in the street.  But the big drama was over.

Engine 1's Captain walked up to our truck as his guys made their way back up the street with their cones to make small talk and bid us adieu.  He got a little close to the pole, and Gary said he might not want to be under that switch.  Either he didn't hear us or he didn't take it seriously, but about 0.2 seconds later he jolted like he'd been stung by a bee and darted back into the street, slapping at his shoulder, "Ouch! Something hot hit me!" He was looking at the ground to find what he had knocked off his shoulder.

One of his crew said "Cap! Your shoulder is still smoking!"  Amusement ensued while the Captain danced a little circular jig in the middle of the street while tearing off his uniform shirt.  Turns out the creosote treatment on this pole was generous, and the fire had melted a lot of it so that it dribbled down to the insulators on the side of the pole and then dripped to the ground.  Just because the fire was out more than five minutes ago does not eliminate the threat.

No helmet, no coat, no PPE.  Lucky he wasn't seriously injured like if it had landed on his head or ears, only a slight 1st degree burn and a destroyed Class B shirt.

When the serviceman stays stay back, there's a reason!  We all have our moments of oopsie so we're not here to poke at the Captain too hard, but for him I am sure it is a lesson learned and lesson passed on to his people for the rest of his career.  And now, to you too.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

You wouldn't block a hydrant, but . . .

The internet is filled with fun pictures of what happens to cars (especially police cars!) that block hydrants, but we in the fire service are all very familiar with bane of overgrown and hidden hydrants as well.


Spot the hydrant!
Mayor fail
Of course, you wouldn't block a hydrant or allow one to be overgrown on your property.  But hydrants are not the only things that need to be found promptly at 3AM in the rain sometimes.  Yes, another power company post, I present you the case of the beleagured and oft-neglected padmount transformer.

Where's the love?
When we are switching to restore power after an outage, my guys are usually working these hot, or are heating them up.  They have to stand several feet away and work with a hot stick, and there is always the risk of equipment failure and a flash arc.


Pay no mind to those tripping hazards.
A bad hydrant won't generally injure or kill you, transformers are a different story.  For this reason, there is a near-universal standard that utility companies require for clearances around transformers.  Not that very many people comply.  Generally speaking, 3' to the sides and rear, and 10' in front for working space as shown by the lineman switching above.

 

This comes up because of the topic of the previous post, where we've been out auditing a crap-ton of transformers in our system.  We often find occasional problems in the course of day-to-day operations just like we find the oddball hidden hydrant, but there are many more transformers out there than hydrants, and the special attention we've been giving them lately here has given rise to a large number of fun discoveries.

We get a lot of complaints when we have to trim them back in an outage to access a unit, but at least then those people were out of power and sort of get it.  It's when we find and trim some pre-emptively that people really cut loose.  They've been growing that shrub or bush for years to hide it, they say.  It's ugly, they say.  No one has opened it in 15 years they say.  Funny, since electricity is as essential as water is for fire protection (some would say more so), how almost no one complains about fire hydrants.  Even the ones not used for a fire in 15 years.

If you have one of these at your home, in your neighborhood, chances are good you never gave it much thought.  If it's overgrown, I am not going to tell you to clear it out, but I will tell you to not get your panties in a wad if one day the power company does it for you unannounced.  And to not complain too much when there are delays getting the power on while linemen wrangle chainsaws and heavy trimmers just to get to their stuff.

Now you know.  Knowing is half the battle.

Enjoy the gallery, it gradually gets better as you go down.






Even when you know it is there, you can't see it.


This one is actually behind that center tree trunk, way back.


Fence overbuild.  Priceless.
Thanks for reading.  Stay safe out there.