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Monday, October 25, 2010

It's a Haz Mat Call! Ugh.

Haz Mat calls, while frequently interesting and sometimes exciting, are not really my forté. Since my FD has no one beyond "Operations" level, which isn't really much more than evacuate, exclude and identify, mostly we stand around and wait for the big boys and their big toys to save the day.

Sometimes, however, you're right there, with no higher qualified help available, and have to take action up to your capabilities as long as your safety is not compromised. Last night was just such a case.

I was in bed when the call reached my ears. I was tired and didn't want to go, but that's why we get paid the big bucks. Up, dressed, and out we go.

I arrived second, and found that the first person on scene had taken command, identified the spilled substance, and was already deploying absorbent materials. Sometimes arriving late has its benefits. Command of a Haz Mat call? No thanks.

The IC advised me that she had already cleared the area of the few bystanders around, and I saw them not far away, watching us with some interest. What do you need, I asked? More absorbents? OK, and I went to clean out my supply accordingly.

I independently verified that the spilled substance was what she had identified it as, and while an unfriendly material, it was not especially hazardous, and required only minimal PPE. As such, no further resources were requested. No need to call everyone out without cause. Besides, that costs a lot of money and we taxpayers have less and less of that lately. Fiscal responsibility of responders is in vogue, you know.

But yuck. I noted papery materials in the spill, and as we now had enough absorbent down that it was no longer spreading, I was able to approach the source and verify that the spill was contained.

Indeed, although the plunger was still in the toilet where one of my sons had dropped it in a panic when the flood began, the level had receded an inch or so below the top of the bowl.

The IC had been trying to close down the house for the night when the incident occurred, so I released her from the call and finished the mitigation myself. And as we don't have an unlimited supply of absorbent materials, I could not just throw my used ones out. I carried a lot of towels to the laundry room.

On the job training is useful everywhere, isn't it?

Cleanup complete and cause resolved, I was back in service. I went back to bed. Very early day shift coming up, you know.

God bless my IC.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Transmission Towers as Art

Although I am a power company guy, and I have a first-hand understanding of the dire need for transmission system upgrades in North America, I am not a proponent of stringing power lines everywhere willy-nilly. They're not pretty, they degrade property values, intrude on scenery, and the jury is still out on health effects (though power companies deny that with the same gusto that tobacco companies denied nicotine addiction).

I got a note from Mack505 of Notes From Mosquito Hill with a link to some interesting stuff. It seems that a company has engineered a transmission tower structure with configurable components, built to resemble the human form. These towers can be installed in a variety of positions and arrangements while still maintaining their required structural strength and integrity and maintaining adequate conductor clearances.

I'll just leave you with the pictures, two links, and this comment:

These are freaking cool.

See more, read more:

"The Land of Giants" by Choi+Shine Architects

Who said pylons have to be boring? (Bayou Renaissance Man)

Thanks, Mack505. Good stuff.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Boom, Baby!

Check this fault current arcing over the cutout fuse. This is just line current serving load, not grounding as a fault. At least not at first.....

There's a big, huge, violent difference between arcing line current and fault current to ground.

Stay away from the pretty, sparkly show.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Do You Know George?


Station 51, psychiatric problem, deputy on scene requesting Code 1 response.

Every time I hear this, I get a little put-out. I am a low-level EMS provider. My EMS skill set revolves around making sure air goes in and out, and blood stays in and goes round and round. Secondary to that I make sure that it is good air going in and out. From there it is downhill with things like making sure 'owies' of all types are covered and/or immobilized. That's really all EMTs do the great majority of the time.

Where in that framework is the training to deal with psych problems?

We're going to get there, perhaps stage for PD/SO if asked to wait, then see that the patient is jacked or wigged or freaked, ensure no injuries, and wait for the medics to show up and take the patient in for an eval because they really don't know what the hell is wrong, either.

It's not that I am unsympathetic. It's just that there isn't really any purpose for us to be there unless the person needs to be wrestled with, and even that falls outside of our job training. There's rarely any real EMS problem, and the exceptions are rarely serious ones. There is not much value I bring to the scene of a psych problem.

But, we go. That's why we get paid the big bucks.

Arriving first in Engine 51, I see Deputy Harrison and the patient. He's got an apparently-cooperative patient cuffed and standing bent over with his head on the hood of a truck. Harrison is holding the patient's cuffed hands in place and standing guardedly behind him.

I pull around them, and shut down the Engine to restore the peace. Harrison merely nods as I get out. I walk in a wide circle, sizing things up since Harrison isn't talking, and so that the patient is not startled by my approach. Looks not too deadly, so I walk in.

Psych Guy: Who are you!!

Grumpy: I'm Grumpy, with the fire department. We're the good guys.

Harrison (deadpan): Hey, now. What's that supposed to mean?

GD (to PG): We're all the good guys, all of us.

Harrison silently mouthed something about my parentage. I helped his Mom once, but just burned my get out of jail free card.

GD (to PG): You're one of the good guys too, man. What's your name?

PG: Aaron. It's too late. You're too late. I can't stop them now. They won't let me save them. Do you know George?

GD: I'm not sure, Aaron. Who's George and where do you know him from?

PG: Who's Aaron? We're talking about George! He was the only one, but he can't help now, either.

GD: ........

PG: Why won't they let me save them before it's too late?

GD: Maybe I can get a hold of George to see if he can do something. Do you know George's last name?

PG: ..... uhhhh (grimace) ..... his wife is...... Jane! She's a nice lady.

GD (wild-assed inspired guess): George Jetson?

Psych Guy abruptly looks up in delight like he just found a long lost kindred spirit.

PG: YOU KNOW THEM!? You can save us all if you call George right away!

Harrison has that beautiful cop poker face thing going on, no idea what he is actually thinking but certain we're putting together a good tale for the shop later.

GD: I haven't seen George in years, Aaron. But I went to school with Elroy, and I think I still have his cell number. Let's get you checked out first, and then you can tell me what's up so Elroy can tell his dad.

PG: Who's Aaron?

The conversation continued in short spurts like this for another ten or fifteen minutes until the medics arrived to take over the dialogue. I could continue, but it was just more of the same and would get boring.

Aaron(?) was found in the garage loft by the homeowner, who had never seen him before. He had taken everything off the shelves, absolutely trashing the place, and made a pile in the middle of the floor before crawling under the pile. His ID said he lived miles and miles away. There was no car or form of transportation that we could link with him. He was hopped on something, or probably multiple somethings. I never found out what it was or what happened to him.

Anyway, I've done a lot of theater, and with it a fair amount of improv. Who knew how well those skills would serve me when driving big red trucks and seeing crazy people? Can't wait to tell George and Elroy, though. Except that it would be a HIPAA violation. Bah.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Erasing the Name

I came in for a night shift at the power company a few days ago. The guy I was replacing was not at his post. I waited for him to reappear, but he was nowhere to be found. I finally asked the other dispatchers. Where's Connor? In the upstairs conference room? Oh, OK.

Went to the conference room, and opened the door. Lots of suits and ties in there, most of whom I recognize. A Director, a VP, a few HR people, my direct boss, and Connor. He wasn't in a "hot seat" configuration, so I knew he wasn't the subject of the meeting. The talk stopped instantly as eyes turned to me. Uh, Connor, can I log you out? Yeah. Closed the door and escaped.


Gerald was enjoying a quiet night. Until of course a storm tore through and started causing him some fits. Trips and recloses. A few lockouts. He was sending crews out here and there for the things he couldn't fix remotely by SCADA. That's what we do, after all. At the end of his shift, he handed off to Matt with the required hand-off debriefing, and went home.

Matt knew that a particular 115kV line was still out from the storm, and that crews were already at work on repairs. A few hours later, the crew called back to return their Clearance. Matt grabbed the Clearance ledger and the "in-progress" work documents. There was a small problem, however. The Clearance ledger had no record of the Clearance on that line. And there was no documentation of the switching orders issued to clear it, let alone the orders prepared to return it.

So, Matt pulled me into it. Why me? Because I'm a Transmission Operations Duty Supervisor now. Yeah, I had not shared that bit with you yet on the blog, but I've been a shift work boss for almost a year now, directly or indirectly supervising about ten dispatchers at a time. Why in the world they think I am responsible enough to do that is beyond me.

Matt and I dug around some more, and found nothing. Matt had to find out from the field crew exactly what had been switched out, and how the Clearance had been given, in order to take it back and put it together. Needless to say, this is irritating and scary for a dispatcher, to have to re-fabricate a "go-back" with no record of the "take-out" to base it on. Matt is good though, and handled it.

But what happened to get here? Gerald didn't answer his phone, as no doubt he was now asleep. So I got to do my favorite boss job: Listening to taped calls.

And I was not pleased with what I heard. Gerald's quality of work was somewhere between very unprofessional to deadly dangerous, and I could tell the field guy was not liking how it was going by the tone in his recorded voice. But the field guy pushed back just enough that things were done at least to his satisfaction, though he had no control to make sure Gerald documented what had happened.

No documentation. Crappy phone work. Shoddy switching. Invalid Clearances.

Connor was Gerald's shift boss, so he and I got together to compare notes. Connor and I later held a little internal meeting with Gerald in the conference room. Gerald got copies of our switching and communications policies, and copies of the scary transcripts I had prepared from his calls. Gerald was warned. Stay on operating policy and follow the rules.


Gerald was bummed. He felt that the world was out to get him. Yeah, if you're risking lives through your incompetence, then that is probably a fair statement. All dispatchers whine too much, but Gerald was doing a lot of it in the weeks since his brush with Connor and I.

Then Gerald issued a routine Clearance. Logged it in the ledger. Put the in-progress document away. Not long after, he got a call from a crew that had just arrived to switch out one end of the job.

Say what?  A crew has just arrived to switch out something that just had a Clearance issued on it??

Yeah, Gerald managed to issue a Clearance on a section that, while de-energized by opening circuit breakers via SCADA, was not actually lockout/tagout cleared. Crews had hung hard grounds on 345kV wires that were just three mouse clicks from being closed in on.

Gerald failed to follow policy and issued his orders... well, out of order.

So Gerald pulled the in-progress document back out, issued the order to clear that end, got it all back, and quietly put it back away. Generally speaking, no one critically listens to phone calls or reviews the logs without cause, so it will all go away as long as no one has reason to look.

Wrong answer. The switchman and the work crew somehow got together for lunch, and somehow ended up comparing notes on the times they were working on stuff. Needless to say, the work crew foreman was out for freaking blood.

Connor took that call.


So I logged Connor out and settled in for my shift. He eventually came out and briefed me on the day's operating events, but was not at liberty to discuss what had happened in the conference room. Need to know and all that. Whatever, I have my own problems. Office gossip holds no appeal for me.


Came in tonight for another 12 hours. Checked my email. There's one from my boss to the troops. "Gerald has announced that he is retiring effective today".

Next email was a management-only note from the boss with the details of the incident.

So that's what that was about. Retire or get fired. You don't get many chances in this line of work, any more than you would get in, say, air traffic control. Realistically, if you commit a switching or clearance error more than once over a two or three year span, you're pretty much gone, no matter your tenure or length of service. The last guy I had to participate in "helping out the door", like Connor had just done with Gerald, had over 20 years in. I felt bad, but he seriously nearly killed linemen three times within a year. There is absolutely no tolerance for that.

Looking up on the wall of the Duty Supervisor's office at the shift assignment board, I saw Gerald's name, on 'A' shift, where it had been for years.

I erased it, and then logged in for the night and looked over the next day's scheduled work.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Talk

A couple of weeks ago, a local teenager was killed in a wreck. Just 16 years old, he was riding in an SUV traveling at a high rate of speed, when the teen driver failed to negotiate a curve. The vehicle rolled, and the unbelted kid was pronounced right on the scene.

Jayden’s bright red soft top Jeep was his pride and joy. As he and Brian, best friends since grade 4, met after school, the evening looked promising. Brooke and Lauren were coming with them to the mall tonight to hang out and maybe catch a movie.

After the wreck was splashed on the news, it cut close, as these things frequently do. As the father of a teenager who has just arrived at driving age, along with many of her friends, I have become acutely aware of this latest new thing to worry about.

It was a bright, sunny, clear fall day, and the four teens took down the soft top and climbed in. Money in their pockets and hours of free time beckoned them to a night of fun. They turned on the stereo and cranked it up. Seatbelts were ignored, all the better for wrapping arms around each other, you know.

I told her to think about what was going through this kid’s mind just before the wreck. Was he having fun? Was he scared? Was he unable to get out even if he had realized the danger and wanted to? Did he know that his friend would drive like an idiot, or did he think driving fast was just harmless fun?

Jayden looked over at Brooke, her blonde hair blowing in the wind, and she smiled back at him. He suddenly remembered a hilarious prank that he’d seen pulled in the locker room before lunch, and turned to tell Brian about it, but he was already locked in a passionate hormone-driven teenage kiss with Brooke in the back seat.

I asked her if she ever thought about what her friends were capable of as drivers. Did she think she could accurately judge their character behind the wheel? Would she feel brave enough to say something to the driver if stupidity was being committed? Would she feel confident enough to stay behind in the first place if they encouraged her to go and she had reason to worry?

Jayden laughed, reached back to punch Brian and call him names, and told them to get a room. Lauren looked up, and her eyes widened in horror. Someone was yelling. Brooke screamed. Jayden turned back around. The road curved right, but they were barreling straight at 60 on the 35-limit road. He yanked the wheel to the right as they crossed the center line.

She looked back at me and gave me some mild and sort of noncommittal assurances. She was listening, and probably taking me seriously, but was confident that it could never happen to her. I know that look. I used to wear it, too.

The Jeep went up on its left wheels, yet made the corner. Lauren was thrown onto Brian’s lap. Brooke managed to hang on. Screaming. Crossing back over the line, Jayden was now aimed off the embankment to the right. He made another panic yank to the wheel, to the left. The jeep momentarily fell on all tires and then went all the way up on its right tires. Lauren and Brian were both launched up and out of the Jeep.

So I asked her this. I said, last week, if I sat you and the dead kid down side by side and gave this same lecture to both of you, do you think he’d respond to my worries about like you are? Yes? But now he’s dead. Do you think if I had lectured him last week that he would have taken me seriously? What could have prevented this stupidity?

As the Jeep swerved back to the left on its right tires and crossed the line, it was tipped up to the point of no return. Janelle, mother of three, with her two littlest ones in car seats behind her, was coming the other way from the grocery store. She was adjusting the AC when a red blur caught her eye. Looking up, she didn’t even have time to scream.

So I told her, again, that when she goes anywhere with friends, she needs to carefully consider what the driver might or might not do. Was it worth risking her life just to not be embarrassed by saying no or asking the driver to behave? Who knows, maybe the dead kid had asked the driver to slow down and got ignored, making him a helpless passenger unable to save himself.

The Jeep came right up over the hood of Janelle’s sedan as it rolled over. The impact was enough to deploy Janelle’s airbag, but the Jeep’s main point of intrusion was through the windshield, shoving the roof back and downward as it rolled over the top, leaving red paint on Janelle’s hood like bloody streaks. The airbag was not able to fully protect her head from the inward and downward collapse of the roof.

So, I went on, imagine yourself in that car instead of that kid. At what point do you wish you had not gotten in, and now it is too late, your fate out of your hands?

The leading edge of the roof of Janelle’s sedan caught the Jeep and flipped it violently into the air, the centrifugal force throwing Jayden and Brooke in different directions. Brian and Lauren fell onto the pavement close together, sliding and tumbling off the right shoulder into the bushes.

She looked thoughtful. Maybe the message was getting through. It’s hard to tell, but one can always hope.

The Jeep came to rest on its top, unrecognizable as a Jeep except for the ubiquitous roll cage. Some tires were torn, its hood was in the ditch, the engine partially dislodged, and debris everywhere. Jayden and Brooke landed on different sides of the road. Janelle’s car rammed into the opposite embankment and came to rest. It became quiet.

I love my kids. And this one and I have had this talk before, but the recent death was cause to bring it up again. Never pass an opportunity to use a tangible real-life lesson, you know. It’s different when it is not an anonymous face in the newspaper from somewhere far away, or an overplayed re-enactment done at a school assembly.

I later found out that the first caller reported “kids lying all over the road” and that one of the cars was smoking. It was in the 3rd-due from Station 51, and the way it was dispatched sounded a little hairy, but the “all over the road” part was toned down to “possible ejection”. I picked up Engine 51 and came online. Engine 56 arrived first and gave the size up from hell. Declared MCI, multiple patients on the ground, three trapped requiring extrication including two car seats, request three more ambulances, launch a helicopter, close off the road in both directions, and more manpower.

So I can only hope the message sticks, and try to not go completely crazy when she’s not under my direct supervision and protection. I can’t guard her forever, and I have to trust that she will learn how to make sound decisions. She is an outstanding daughter, and though we have our moments, she is nothing like the nightmares my friends told us teenagers would be like. I’ll take three.

Beyond all reason, none of the patients in this incident were critically injured. Major road rash and a few broken bones for the kids. Minor head trauma and lacerations on the Mom. This should have killed all the teenagers and the Mom, should have left the two little ones with a distant memory of the crash that killed their Mom. But that’s not how the cards were dealt.

Hours later, I had a chance to sit my daughter down. I said, remember what we were talking about a couple of days ago? Well, guess what I just got back from? I said, what do you want to bet those kids would have rolled their eyes had I given them The Talk this morning? It was never going to happen to them, just like it won’t happen to you. I got three hugs from her today. I can’t remember the last time I got three hugs in one day.

Only broken glass on the shoulder, some discoloration from spilled fluids, and orange spray paint on the roadway marking skids, impacts and final resting points give a clue to the day’s events. We were all fairly sure that there would be multiple critical injuries, and possibly a fatality in the mix, which resulted in a full scene workup by the Sheriff's Office that kept the road closed for hours.

Not this time, though. And somewhere, the next fatality knows....won’t happen to them. Never.