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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Of Yardsticks and Manly Measurements

Like the day I broke the FD tanker, the shift at the power company started like any other routine day destined for minor excitement.

If you haven't read the tutorials (check the tag cloud on the right), some of this might be a bit overly technical, but I'll try to keep it simple. It won't however, be short. Sorry.

There we were, routinely minding our business, the grid more or less running as it was supposed to.

Suddenly, our ACE (the instantaneous difference between how much electricity we are producing, and how much is being consumed, adjusted for expected flows to other utilities, which should nominally be 0), jumped to about 650.  Then it started bouncing every few minutes by as much as 250MW up and down, pushing us way out of bounds on both sides.  That's an attention getter.

If the ACE thinks you have an extra 650 megawatts, only three things can have happened (or at least the AGC computer was led to believe one of these three things). Either (1) a generator suddenly decided to give you an extra 650MW (equal to a very large coal-fired plant), (2) you lost 650MW of consumer demand (equal to blacking out a very large metropolitan area), or (3) one of the power lines attaching you to another utility suddenly increased its flow by 650MW for some unexplained reason.

1 and 2 fall somewhere between impossible and extremely unlikely, and both would give you other clues such as an abrupt change in system frequency from the nominal 60Hz, and in the case of that much theoretical lost load, an overwhelming number of open circuit breaker alarms.

That leaves option 3. A flow meter, for whatever reason, decided that it needed to give us a vastly different number.  With no other tie lines also changing for a real-world event, this means the input went bad, a single false number.

The result of the instantaneous +650 ACE was that the automatic generation controller suddenly was being told that our generation/load balance was way, way out, and immediately started to control numerous power plants downward.

Remember the movie Star Trek: Insurrection, when Riker went to "manual mode" to fly the Enterprise? A flying controller deployed that amounted to a joystick, causing the audience to chuckle.

That's figuratively what I did. Went to manual AGC control and started flying by the seat of my pants to control our balance. Ultimately, we would end up running like this for about two hours. It was complicated.

While on manual control, the wind started to blow, wouldn't you know? Remember my wind power rants, about controlling around the serendipitous wind? This extra (real) generation output caused the units I was regulating balance with to go down to their minimum outputs.

This was about the time that the retired senior manager/engineer (RSME), who is now a contractor, arrived to save the day.

Now, to keep you interested in the story, I will break the monotony by sharing with you this completely unrelated picture, which always cracks me up.

OK, cute. Now, where were we? Oh yes, the RSME was now in the house.

I was periodically disabling the automatic controller while tweaking numbers, and the first thing he noticed was that the controller was off. He jumped to the conclusion that our excitement was centered on trying to get this thing back on.

This is key. He wanted to help us turn something on that I had deliberately turned off for cause.

So, what kinds of things would cause the automatic generation controller to automatically disable itself, you ask?

Any known bad input value will disable it, though in this case the software was not figuring out the value behind today's excitement was bad. Also, in theory, if the generation plants you are using to control output get all the way to the edge of their capability high or low, it is supposed to come off, though we have it set up to not do that.

RSME noted that, while I was flying in manual, the regulation units were almost bottomed out. If he had taken a few extra seconds, he might have realized that this was mainly because four major wind farms had a front blowing through and were giving us hundreds of unplanned MWs that we had to back out of the way to accommodate.

So we dispatchers are discussing the situation, flying manual, trying to resolve the problem, and RSME interrupts to tell us we have to move a couple of other power plants down so that the regulation units can move back into the middle of their bandwidth.

WTF are you talking about? (I didn't quite ask it that way, but I was helpless to control my tone).

You need to get your AGC back on.

No I don't, I manually disabled it on purpose, because I want it off.

Well, it needs to be on, and you have to direct those other plants to move up.

No it doesn't, and no I don't. That's not the problem.

He raised his voice and started to repeat himself.

It was then that I grabbed the hammer, broke the glass, pulled out the book, and invoked the Dispatcher is In Charge Rule.

You are not helping, you don't know what is wrong, you are interrupting us trying to tell us how to fix something that is not broken, and you need to leave the room.

Whoa, if looks could kill. He opened his mouth, closed it, then said he was going to bite his tongue this one time, and then left. Pardon me while I shed a tear of regret. Oh, and point of correction, it will be always, not "this one time". Thanks. OK, onward.

After affairs were settled a few hours later, I went to his office to clear things up, conciliatory and assuming good intent and all that. I related back the problem as he stated it and what he thought should be done to fix it, and he agreed with me. I then reiterated that the problem was now solved and had indeed turned out to be completely unrelated to his diagnosis. I told him his directives were 100% irrelevant to the incident.

There it was. We had pulled out the yardsticks, unzipped, and measured. I won on both counts: Authority to kick him out, and correct diagnosis in the first place.

He closed the conversation by ignoring my revelation, and by saying he wasn't going to worry about it, but that I should work on my people skills.

I'll get right on that, thanks.

I doubt I'm getting a Christmas card from him this year. It's too bad, though, because on the whole he is actually a really good guy. Which is not remotely enough to keep you from getting booted from my control room kingdom if you piss me off.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My New Record

It was a normal, rather quiet shift at Station 53.  You know these shifts.  The nondescript routine days where you are just minutes away from setting a new and infamous department record.

The call was for a wildland fire, well outside of our service area, for resources.  Station 56 and 54 covered the initial response for requested resources.  But then, as these kinds of days are apt to do, they promptly called us for our tanker.  Stu was my partner for the day, poor guy.  He suffered the role of helpless spectator as events unfolded.  We grabbed our wildland costumes and tossed them aboard Tanker 53.  Have no fear, 53 is on the way.

We'd been driving quite a while, and were now down south in the boonies, just minding our own business, when the air line blew out.  It was pretty loud.  In the cab, it was like a sudden fighter jet cockpit alarm in a movie, as the low pressure alarm came on and a light flashed, adding to the noise.  Funny stuff.  I had about 30 seconds to find a pull-off to avoid blocking the dirt road.  Air pressure went down to just 10psi and held, rising only as high as 15psi when I increased the RPMs.  Not nearly enough to keep the brakes off.  We were done.

How I hate calling the IC and dispatch with that kind of news.  If we had been under cell coverage, that conversation would not have been broadcast.  Oh well.

Three hours later, a very big tow truck arrived.  Gloriously, he had the parts with him to fix us on the spot.

The fire was controlled by then, so we were released to mope back to Station 53.  We had emptied the tank, anticipating being towed, so now needed to refill the tank first.

Long drive back to town.

Pulling away from the hydrant, there was an odd smell.  I know that smell very well.  Mirror check.  Mother of...... we're trailing a plume of coolant steam like an acrobatic airplane at a show.  You have got to be kidding.

We were close to home, so I watched the temperature and limped Tanker 53 back to quarters without further incident.  It was like a cartoon episode when I shut down the engine and we sat in the bay without speaking, the hissing from under the hood, steam blowing out, audible dripping underneath.

Tanker 53 is out of service in quarters.

So, the record?  Yeah.

For the first time in department history, as far as anyone can remember, the Grumpy Dispatcher is the first guy to drive and then break a piece of apparatus, to un-driveable condition, twice, on a single incident.

Sweet.  Where's my commemorative engraved plaque?

Thursday, July 22, 2010




Engine 24, Automatic Fire Alarm, 4359 West 88th Ave..... at Station 24. Engine 24, Automatic Fire Alarm, smoke detector activation at Station 24, 4359 West 88th Ave. Time out......

Engine 24 was in quarters at the time.

Radio silence ensues, for about three minutes.

Then dispatch pipes up again.....

Engine 24, getting an authorized cancel. Engine 24, getting an authorized cancel from the alarm company, they report food on the stove.

24 never even came up on the air at all.

This could have been handled by phone, I suppose.

So, will the dispatcher be expecting payback, or was it payback that we were hearing for a previous event we missed?

Gave us a nice chuckle.  Thanks, fire dispatcher.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Surviving Fire Forums

Some great stuff from the Backstep Firefighter, worth a good chuckle, and should be required reading for the new, wet-behind-the-ears young bucks coming online and thinking that the interwebs connection means they made it to the big time.

Certainly some of these elements are true for law enforcement forums.... but I suspect the dynamic is somewhat different on that side, and almost certainly less forgiving.  I don't go there myself.  I'd get pegged.

Snippets from the article reprinted with permission.  Or, you can skip these little previews and go read this gem in its entirety here.


Forums and Blogs

Nearly every fire website has a forum section. This is supposed to be an area for open discussion, hence the word forum. Unfortunately too many folks use forums as a new version of high school. Here in the internet age you can relive all your adolescent efforts to be the popular person, getting in the right cliques and picking on the nerdy guys. Oh, by the way, you may want to open a new tab and look up satire, sarcasm and humor, just so it doesn’t get ugly. Some of you might not be able to tell that I’m writing in a new font style that makes you read my words as if Jerry Seinfeld was saying them. If I’m coming across like R. Lee Emery, you need to reboot your computer. That’s not true, but check your inner tone of voice while reading this. I’m pretty sure someone will get ticked.

“Did you read what he wrote?”
“No, what was it?”
“He said I was behaving like I was in high school.”
“He said it, or he wrote it?”
“He wrote it, but it was the way he wrote it, sneering. Little twit.”



Stupid Questions

You see, blogs are for writing, as in paragraphs, and they’re meant to be read, digested, and thought over. Blogs are not for asking where you can find green bulbs for your roto ray. Roto Rays in Virginia, 703-437-3353 by the way. I bet some of you have it in your phone contacts. That’s not a blog subject, that’s a stupid question. They used to say that there was no such thing as stupid questions. Then came search engines. Stupid questions were born because the folks who created search engines didn’t plan on having to account for lazy folks using the internet to find remedies to their conundrums. Yeah, that’s right, conundrum. Look it up. Don’t post it in the forums and ask what it means, but get your lazy butt up and find the dictionary.

“Diction-wha? Is that the game where you draw pictures?”

People complain that the biggest problems with forums are stupid questions. These are questions where the answers come from one or more of the following sources:

1. Your chief
2. Your officer
3. Your senior man
4. Your rookie handbook
5. Your parents
6. Google
7. Khasim at the local 7-11


Forum Seniors

No, not elderly readers who get the feature spot closest to the top. I’m talking seniors as in class bullies (see, brought you back to that high school reference). Where in the name of everything sensible and just did an insignificant thing as post counts equate expert witness testimony?

“Today, the CDC has announced it has offered ‘fireslayer301’ the position of Chief Investigator in NIOSH’s Firefighter Fatality Prevention Program. Mr. Slayer brings to the position his five years experience on and 2,764 post counts.”


Photos and Videos
Everyone loves good firefighting photos and videos, ones that show a working fire or complex extrication, or detailed training. What is disappointing are the ones that make you wonder ‘why bother?’ Seriously, do we need to see five videos of your quint responding, with each video being 15 seconds long?

“Dude, I just uploaded a vid of 33’s new engine responding!”

Lemme guess, they made a right on 202, or a left?


So there you have it, a basic guide to having a successful fire forum life. For some of you, this means not posting at all.



All right, you know you want to see the whole thing.....

Friday, July 16, 2010

Teamwork Fail

Working together means sharing the credit instead of hogging it all for yourself.

Update @ 14:25: I've been posting periodic fire and EMS "fails" for a while, and figured I had taunted my own ilk enough that I could safely take a good-natured poke at the guys in blue. I swear I had forgotten that MotorCop had just put up a post about Teamwork a few days ago. Really!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I Don't Believe It

That actually went by a lot faster than I thought it would.

I'm not sure I can stand another year of me, though.

Oh well.  Onward.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Knowing the Power Lines in your Fire District

Your house gong goes off, or your Minitor chirps. Traffic accident involving a power pole.

You arrive and find this.

You give your size-up, and you know you want the power company to be notified. Is it enough to give the power company - secondhand through your dispatchers - just a physical location?

How does this sound: Engine 9 arrived and is Broadway Command, semi truck head-on with a pickup truck, southbound lane blocked, power pole is broken but has not fallen, patients are still in the pickup truck which is under the power lines, start another medic, and law enforcement for traffic control, notify the power company.

It is possible to provide more information, and therefore provide for the improved safety of your crews, by knowing the line and feeder names, and knowing a little power company lingo, without seriously messing with your size-up.

My size-up would sound like this: Engine 9 arrived and is Broadway Command, semi truck head-on with a pickup truck, southbound lane blocked, power pole is broken but has not fallen, patients are still in the pickup truck which is under the power lines, start another medic, and law enforcement for traffic control, notify the power company to put Clarenceville Feeder 403 on non-auto and to not test.

I'll explain the jargon as we go on.

I'm not going to address the scene safety angle here regarding physical harm from falling hardware and/or snapping wire conductors, though. This here is a safety officer's nightmare to be sure (and there's enough in this pic for an entirely different post!), but I'm only going to talk about knowing the names of the lines and feeders in your area and how to talk to your dispatchers about it.

Every power line, be it a 500kV major transmission line or a single-phase 4kV distribution tap, is part of a named or numbered circuit. It is not impossible to keep track of these names, and there aren't as many as you might think.

If you have major transmission lines through your district, find out their names or numbers, and note them on your district maps. Major transmission is pretty much anything on a lattice steel tower or multi-pole wooden structure, or anything high up and with a lot of bell insulators.

Feeders are almost always numbered, and are usually associated with their source distribution substation. If you work for a city FD, there are probably five or less feeders in your entire first-due, with numerous taps branching off to reach everyone.

So, with a little research, a phone call at a minimum, a station visit by a power company field ops guy would be better, and a visit to the power company's control center if within reasonable geographic distance would be best, you get this info one way or another and know what the lines and feeders are called by the guys who operate them.

So what do you want of this stuff now that you know what to call it? What to do when you're attempting to mitigate the chaos?

Situation: It's energized, and you're working near it. There is a slight risk of contact or failure, but you do not feel that it needs to be de-energized. You want this circuit to be on non-auto, (or one-shot). This means you want the associated automatic circuit reclosers to be disabled, so that if the line trips, it will not automatically be re-energized.

Situation: It's not energized, but you've had no contact with the power company yet. If energized, it could create some undesired excitement. You want this circuit to stay out. This means the power company will verify that the reclosers are disabled, and they will not attempt to energize the circuit until they hear back from whoever asked for it to stay out, and even then they'll likely not try to put it back until they hear from their own personnel as well.

Situation: It's energized, you're near it, and there is a fairly significant risk of contact, and you'd be much happier to have it de-energized. You want this circuit to be on non-auto right away, and to be de-energized as soon as possible. This again means auto-reclosing will be disabled, and the power company will de-energize the line as soon as possible after ensuring no customers will be dropped. This could take anywhere from a few minutes if remote control is available, to an hour or more if it requires a crew response. It is not unreasonable to request an expected time frame before the circuit is dropped.

Situation: It's energized, and there is immediate danger to life. You want this circuit de-energized for life safety. The power company will do whatever it is capable of doing to drop that circuit without regard to who gets interrupted. Don't play this card unless you really need it. A couple of "cried wolf" events will slow their future reaction to this kind of request.  But when you do play it, make sure a scary phrase like "urgent life safety emergency" is used, to be very clear that all the stops should be pulled.

There is no nationwide standard for the jargon, but it is close enough from place to place that if you use these words and the 911 dispatcher repeats them verbatim to the power company dispatcher directly, your message should get across. Visiting with your local power company staff will ensure you have the locally correct jargon, too.

Anything you can do to reduce the number of go-betweens passing the message would be good. Ideally you want the 911 dispatcher talking directly to the power company dispatcher, and not having to go through the power company's customer service outage line. Even better, if they're willing, have the 911 operator pass along your cell number so the power dispatcher can talk right to you in the field.

I part for now with this: Power dispatchers are loathe to drop a circuit when it can be avoided, but they will (should!) do it immediately, no-questions-asked, if you clearly throw down the life-safety card and make sure that term reaches the power dispatcher's ears.

Not enough IC's use that card when it is truly needed, and there have been too many electrocution LODDs that would have been prevented if only the power dispatcher had been aware of the seriousness of the situation.

Stay safe out there.