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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.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Would you like it gift wrapped, too?

Power company tale here.  Several months ago we got a request from our GIS department.  Seems that at the time of transition from AutoCAD feeder drawings to GIS drawings over ten years ago, a lot of data was not transferred properly.

Now that we're implementing a new asset-tracking platform, the missing data that has been known about for many years is now a problem.  No one really got after it before, because over time we get out to places and did an upgrade here, replacement there, added something on, and each time that happened a tiny little bit is filled in.  In theory I guess this means eventually you'll catch up, but eventually is now too long to wait.

Our project request was to identify in GIS every location where we had a padmount transformer installed with no asset data tied to it, and then send a serviceman out to that unit and record the necessary data.

We're talking somewhere along the lines of 2,000 units.  For realio.

So I've been working on this for months.  Identifying the units, assigning work orders, and collecting their data and funneling it back to the GIS group.  We use these jobs as filler when nothing else is going on, and a little fill is nice when you're bored, but doing 10 or 15 per shift per person on slow days gets old real fast for my guys.

Serviceman Pete is one of my most tenacious guys, but not in the usual sense.  He is tenacious about his time being used efficiently and effectively.  And this job was really bothering him.  He complained, and I told him we had our orders and it was our job to fulfill it.  He had some ideas he wanted to chase down, and I won't stand in the way of my guys, let alone get steamrolled by Pete on a mission.

Pete researched old database records and asked around, lo and behold he located a positively elderly but still functional database that had a great number of these lost units in it, and told the GIS leader about it.  Put two and two together, and most of the missing data was now recoverable with some GIS department desk time matching records up and making updates.

So I get to work today and get an email from the GIS leader with this data in it, explaining that it should help in our search for info, and we can use our established communication chain through the GIS system to get the data back to him.

(screeching, scratch across a vinyl record, full-stop sound effect.)

So, you mean to tell me that you had this data all along?

And, pray tell, why are you sending me the data, that you asked us to get for you?

Would you like me to put a pretty red bow on it and give it back to you, saying "here's the data you asked us to get for you"?

How about this: You keep your data, clean up your records to the best of your ability, and then come talk to us when you've exhausted your resources and actually need help filling in the gaps.

Honestly.  This happened.

Thank the good Lord for great employees like Pete who find solutions, and that I don't have the GIS guy anywhere in my management tree.

Friday, May 15, 2015

No guarantees!

We got a single call for power trouble from a place with three-phase service, some of their stuff wasn't working but they weren't totally out.  According to the mapping data, they were served from three individual overhead transformers.  Certainly this meant that one of those transformers had failed, especially since we were not getting any other calls.  We sent Bear over in 574 to check it out.

Upon arrival, Bear is a little perplexed to find that all three cutouts to the overhead banks are closed in and holding.  He investigates at the customer's panel and is getting no voltage on a couple of their low-side phases.  Perhaps something is wrong in the secondary from the transformers to the panel?  No, it is all above ground, plainly visible, nothing obviously wrong.  Bear flies up in the bucket and tests for voltage above the banks, and shows good voltage to all three transformers.

Nothing is apparently wrong, yet stuff isn't working.  Rare is the day that the Bear is stumped.  Today is one of those days.  Bear swallows his pride and calls for backup.  577 Kevin heads his way.

Kevin arrives and goes through the same checks, comes to the same conclusions.  While he is up in the air near the transformers, Kevin also load-checks all three phases of the 12kV overhead going down the tap to the 150 or so customers downstream past this place.  They are stumped, and looking for inspiration.  Oddly enough, Kevin gets 30-something amps on A phase, 2 amps on B phase, and 50-something amps on C phase.  Ideally they should be sort of balanced, and the mere 2 amps on B phase is outside of plausible under normal circumstances.

This isn't making any sense.  If there is voltage on B phase, people should be in power, but according to the load check of just 2 amps there is effectively no flow going downstream, yet none of the B phase customers downstream have reported power outages over 90 minutes into this incident.

At this point, if I was out there, I would want to have a cup of tea to think things over.  The urge to break something in frustration would also cross my mind.  Thankfully it isn't me out there, but the dedicated duo of Kevin and the Bear.

Kevin has a hunch, and drives back upstream to a set of line reclosers just a few spans before the problem site, and much to his surprise, finds the B phase recloser is open.  Yet..... B phase has voltage.  Can it get any more confuzzling?

Kevin and Bear pair up in one of the trucks and go patrolling the downstream tap to try to sort out the mystery.  Sure enough, about a half mile down the way, they find that something.... wind?... has caused a span of the B phase primary overhead to lay flopped over C phase.  Suddenly, the flood of comprehension washes over them.

Under normal circumstances, all three phases should be more or less equally loaded.  Something caused B and C phase to come in contact with each other and cause a cross-phase fault.  The single phase reclosers for B and C phase would have been extremely unhappy about this and would have tripped one or two times hoping the fault would clear.  The timing of these reclosers was just ever so much of a smidgen off that one of the reclosers closed back in and held while the other gave up.  The result was B phase load was now being carried not through the recloser as normal, but through where the lines were entangled.  This is why there was no load on B phase at the outage site, they were now electrically at the farthest end of B phase with its source coming through the tangle.  This is why no B phase customers reported an outage, at most they saw a couple of blinks.

And lastly, the original caller was the only 3-phase customer on this tap.  Some 3-phase service relies on magical AC theory stuff having to do with the gap between phases, and when two of the three phases are unexpectedly tied together (instead of A-B-C they were getting A-C-C), anything relying on the difference between AB or BC phases will get no potential, and stuff won't work.

If not for that one and only 3-phase customer reporting a problem, there's no telling how long this might have sat this way until something else brought the problem to our attention.

And another lesson was driven home for everyone.  Despite the B phase recloser being open, the line was backfed and hot.  Even if you have a visual open, a line isn't dead until it is grounded and dead.

Those guys did a good job sleuthing it out.  Stay safe out there.