Firefighter    ■    Power Dispatcher    ■    Husband    ■    Daddy    ■    Grandpa    ■    Crazy Man

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Fireman's Rant on Drivers

Uber-long post warning.
Yes, everyone who goes slower than me is an idiot, and everyone who goes faster than me is a maniac. I get it. I also am someone’s idiot and someone else’s maniac, and have made more than my share of dumb mistakes. That said, I have compiled in my mind, over the many years I have been driving fire engines, a short list of things I wish people were taught in driving school. I will share, but will probably forget more than half the things I want to say. Take what you want, leave the rest. Even if you change nothing, at least you listened.

Remember, “you only have to be stupid once to be dead permanently”. Think of that as you read through this.

ON THE FREEWAY, SLOW DOWN, MOVE OVER. When you see any emergency vehicle parked on the shoulder of the freeway or in a traffic lane, please slow down and give us some room. Yes, I know you lack the self control to keep yourself from looking at our meaningless little fender bender, but please remember that neither can anyone else. The odds of some other Looky Lou bumping into you and causing you both to crash into us, as we work to save someone else, are very great. Also, airbags and crumple zones don’t help much if you bash into the back of our BRT (that’s Big Red Truck). Not to mention, that after you have splattered into the back of our BRT, you are now the thing sticking out in traffic, and more people than ever are now craning their necks to see. Who will they crash into? Please, leave an ENTIRE open lane between you and the emergency vehicle you are passing. This also goes for tow trucks, police cars, etc.

KEEP INTERSECTIONS CLEAR. In heavy traffic, please try to avoid blocking intersections. I know that red light everyone is waiting to get through is three blocks away, and unless you pull right up to the bumper of the guy in front of you, some jerk is going to cut in, so I understand your desire to not leave room. Heck, it’s only a little residential street you’ve blocked access to, and it’s only for a moment. Meanwhile, I bet you hope no one is blocking access to the road YOU live on when your wife, child, mother is choking on a grape or trapped in a growing fire while I pull up to the corner and hang on the air horn cord and glare at that guy keeping me from your family (and those who squeezed up behind him) who all pulled up too far and now can’t get out of my way to let me through. When you block any intersection, YOU are that guy.

HOW TO PULL OVER FOR US. Let me make it simple. Pull to the right. Stop. I'll elaborate ever so slightly. As soon as safely possible, put on your right turn signal, begin to slow down, and move as far to the right as safely possible while remaining on pavement. Come to a stop and wait until we pass.

Do not assume that there is only one BRT or squad car, as we sometimes travel in groups. If you pull out immediately after the first BRT goes by, you are likely to get whacked. At intersections, we may be coming from different directions. Look everywhere and listen before venturing forth.

Do not panic-stop in your lane. If you stop, we might be able to swerve around you, but if there is nowhere else for us to go and you lock ‘em up right in front of us, you’re likely to get whacked. Remember what I wrote above, as soon as safely possible, move to the right and pull over. If that means keep going for a half block or through an intersection to get out of the way and pull over, fine.

Do not delay your pulling over, as once again for all you know we're on our way to your house or to help someone you love. Once you see we're coming is the time to start finding a safe place to pull over and wait. If we're coming at you from the front, you should still pull over, as the wiggler in front of me may lock 'em up and I might have to swerve into your lane to get around him. We're big, heavy, and in a hurry. Do not trifle with the thought of being in our way.

I promise to not drive like a maniac if you promise to not freak out at the mere sight or sound of me.

DON’T FOLLOW ME. There is an amazing number of lightbulbs who think it is a brilliant idea to follow us while we’re running to an alarm in order to beat the traffic lights. Try to remember that although you now have read this and would never panic stop in front of a BRT (right?), someone else surely will. Remember when I talked about how you’d fare if you whacked into my tailboard?

We had one lady who didn’t quite stop as we passed by in the lane on her left. As we pulled past, she sped up, and stayed just behind us on the right. Trouble was, we needed to make a right turn on one of those little roads that you are now so kind about not blocking any more. Our driver slowed to take the turn, and with the BRT it is a wide turn out of the left lane, with the turn signal on (yes, we do use them but they’re hard to notice with all that other blinking stuff), and we watched to see if she’d figure it out. She slowed down and fell back, but once again like when we passed her the first time, she failed to come to a complete stop. In the shaky little mirror hanging off the right side of the BRT, it looked to the driver like she stopped. Silly him for that assumption. He started to make the right turn, and heard screeching tires. The Captain looked back in surprise, and remarked on the look on this lady’s face as she drove up onto the sidewalk to avoid T-boning the BRT. Yes, despite her carelessness, this accident would have been our fault. PULL OVER. THEN STOP.

Again, I’ll make it simple. Just stay away from us when we’re responding. Again, that goes for ambulances, squad cars, etc.

MAKE YOUR HOUSE NUMBERS VISIBLE. Yes, this is not a driving rant, but a key critical thing that you can do to speed emergency response to your home. Can I see your house numbers clearly from the street? How about at night? Are your house numbers on a pillar or wall in front of the porch light where it can’t shine on them? Do they contrast well? Brass on brick = stealth. White on black and vice versa = obvious. Get large house numbers, at least 3” tall. Bigger is better. Reflective numbers are a godsend, as we will shine our spotlights to try to find house numbers. Are there any other lights shining towards the street that will blind me when I am looking for your house number? How about in the rain when I can’t see through my spattered windows so well? How about in the fog? Is it painted on the curb where you park cars so I can’t see it? You may have house numbers on your roadside mailbox, but are they big enough? Are the numbers on the front and both sides? Are there a bunch of mailboxes grouped together so I can't tell for sure which of the four driveways goes to your house? Consider painting your mailbox to match your house color.

Make your house number so blindingly obvious that I waste not even a second finding you on a dark moonless night in a heavy sleet, which is no doubt the conditions we’ll be in when we would otherwise waste precious minutes trying to figure out where you are. Don’t forget to turn on your porch light. It is a tremendous help if you can spare someone to flash the porch light on and off or stand on the sidewalk (not in the street!) and flag us down.

And now, since I have the podium, I shall shamelessly add some personal driving rants of my own.

WHAT PART OF “YIELD” DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND? “Yield” [yeeld] (verb) - to surrender or submit. When you are merging onto the freeway or into any kind of ramp, yield does not mean just barge into the lane and make everyone scurry to afford you room. Your yield sign means it is YOUR job to either find a way to fit at the proper speed without disturbing the traffic flow, or to wait if absolutely necessary. No one likes the fool who stops for a yield sign, so if you can’t figure out the balance of yielding while not actually stopping, please turn in your driver’s license now, you have no business driving until your skills improve.

SPEAKING OF ONRAMPS AND OFFRAMPS. The freeway is a limited access highway. Limited access means reduced disruptions. So don’t disrupt. These ramps were built exactly for this reason, to minimize disruption. Think of exit and entrance ramps for freeways as airplane runways, and the freeway is the sky. You’ve got the whole onramp “runway” to get up to takeoff speed, so use it. Match speeds with traffic, then yield and merge. See, that was painless! When it is time to exit, don’t slow down – don’t even take your foot off the gas – until you’re on that offramp “runway”, that’s why they built it so long. There's plenty of time to slow down once you're on the ramp. Just like when flying an airplane, if you don’t get up to speed before takeoff, or if you slow down before landing, a crash becomes a realistic expectation.

HANG UP AND DRIVE. Study after study after study after study has shown that talking drivers are impaired comparable to drunk drivers. At least drunks can beg ignorance in their stupor, but a sober cell-phone talker has no such excuse. If you talk and drive (or worse, text and drive), you are making a conscious, sober choice to be as dangerous as a drunk driver, and my contempt for talking drivers is therefore greater than for drunk drivers. This is why so many states are making it illegal. Catch a clue: HANG IT UP! Exception: Calling 911 when it is unsafe or impossible to pull over.

SEATBELTS SAVE LIVES. If you want to take your chances and not wear them, suit yourself. Your splattered remains will wash into the gutter like every other hapless fool who made the same choice before you. Hopefully your body won’t kill any of your passengers as it gets bashed around in your vehicle and wrapped around the rear armrest, or fly into someone else’s windshield at 70MPH or under their wheels after you get tossed like a ragdoll out the passenger window, giving that other innocent driver nightmares for the rest of their life due to your careless invincibility complex. You all look the same to me in that condition anyway, so I probably won’t remember you. HOWEVER.... Children in your care are not informed enough to make their own decisions about personal safety. They do not understand the risks of not being restrained in a child seat or seat belt. They are not in control of the car nor in control of the other car about to blow through the red light and whack you because the other driver failed to HANG UP AND DRIVE. The children are truly innocent, and they depend on you to keep them safe. You are their protector and defender. Do not let them down. If I see you with unrestrained children in your car, I WILL call 911 and I WILL follow you to the ends of the Earth until my friends in blue arrive. The splattered children I NEVER forget, they will haunt me until my last breath. Their faces are fresh in my mind as I follow you and call in a police airstrike. I have no sympathy for your lame excuses, failing in this basic protection of innocent children is an unforgivable sin.

LEFT LANE = PASSING LANE. If you are in the left lane on the freeway and are not actively in the process of passing someone, get out of the way. It is a PASSING lane. In some states, even though you’re going the speed limit, you can still get a ticket for parking yourself in the left lane and blocking those nasty speeders from getting through. Yes, you read that right, driving the speed limit in the left lane can earn you a ticket. Do not get all offended and huffy if someone blinks their high beams at you for camping in the left lane, since if you got blinked, YOU are the illegal offender.

CRUISE CONTROL. USE IT. Almost everyone has cruise control now. I like it for those long trips. Something that really frosts my weasel is when I creep up on someone with my CC on and then move over briefly into the left PASSING lane to get by them. Then their NASCAR instincts kick in, holy crap they are about to get passed, and they goose the throttle a bit and pull away. OK, whatever, Chuck. So I get out of the passing lane and fall in behind them. I don’t care who wins the race, I’m just driving here. Then they drift back off the gas and make me tap the brakes and disable my CC again so I don’t rear end them. OK, pull into the passing lane again, and off they go again. Ok, Speed Racer, if you want to “win”, then floor it like you mean it, but stop screwing with me. I love the gestures I get when I finally floor it past them on the fourth attempt, then settle back into their lane on CC (at the speed I was going when I caught up to them in the first place, mind you), and then they tailgate me for a few miles or even pass me again to start the whole thing over. Man, I am just trying to get somewhere without drama. Where’s my fender mount rocket launcher when I need it?

WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU THINKING? GET YOUR FEET DOWN! I cannot find adequate words to convey to you how blazingly stupid it is for a passenger to put their feet up on the dashboard. Have you ever heard of an airbag? Did you know that they inflate at speeds in the neighborhood of 300MPH? An improvement over exploding your head like a melon against the dash, nonetheless they hurt like the dickens in a wreck, but that’s just your face hitting them at 65MPH after they have already come to full inflation and stopped expanding before your face hit it. Imagine how your legs will feel getting whacked below the knees at 300MPH, snapping both of your knees backwards, and how those legs will feel as they get rammed into your face at 200MPH a millisecond later. At least your legs slowed the airbag down to 200MPH before your kneecap was planted through your throat and into your brain stem. Do you really think you’ll have time to get them down before a collision? Oh look, we’re about to smack the tailboard of a BRT, I better get my legs down first. No one plans these things, you ignorant fool, so get your feet off the dashboard!

Pause. Deep sigh. Growl. OK, I feel better now.

This rant was way longer than intended. Feel free to add notes of appreciation, hate mail, whatever. I’m a fireman, I’ve seen and heard worse, and I don’t lose any sleep over it.

Please be safe, watch out for children, and remember, life is not a video game. Again.... you only have to be stupid once to be dead permanently.

And oh yeah, check your smoke detector when you get home. Like the airbag, you never know when you’ll need it.

UPDATE 8/18/09: There has been an addendum to this post. If you are not already offended and want a little more of this stuff, go HERE.

UPDATE 8/30/09: A 2nd addendum has been added HERE.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Compliance Follies

After the 2003 blackout, the balance of authority shifted dramatically. For the past several decades, even through the deregulation disaster of the late 90's, the control areas and transmission providers existed in a sort of self-policing arrangement where the North American Reliability Council (NERC) maintained non-binding Operating Policies that the members sort of agreed to follow even though there was no real enforcement or punishment for noncompliance.

After the 2003 incident and the (non)revelation that not everyone treated the Policies as the gospel, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) decided to flex some federal muscle and lay down the law. FERC (government) deputized NERC (industry nanny) to stop being a helpless nanny and learn to be a mean, justice-delivering pit bull (apologies to pit bull lovers).

Sorry, this is getting boring, let me get back on track. We'll have to come back to this stuff in bits and pieces eventually, young padawans... there is much to learn.

So, FERC's new NERC dog chucked the vaguely all-pleasing Policies and replaced them with strictly-defined Standards. These Standards now include definitions for different degrees of noncompliance and the associated financial penalties that can be assessed for violations. Huge penalties. HUGE. In fact, Grumpy's company got whacked with an 8-figure NERC/FERC fine relatively recently.

Anyway, drilling in to one specific Policy.... there is a requirement that each control area be able to monitor the system frequency (normally 60.00Hz +/-0.20... what produces the hum you hear coming from power substations and lines). It isn't enough to monitor it in one place, however. Each dispatcher must be capable of seeing the system frequency as measured in multiple locations. This is vital in case your system is broken into pieces in a collapse so that, for example, you do not direct a power station to change its output to correct a problem in an area it is no longer connected to. In addition, the frequency monitors must be independent of the software application used to control the grid, so that in theory you can still see the different frequencies even while you are helpless to do anything because your Energy Management System (EMS) app is dead. It's nice to see the ground coming up to meet you through the window when the stick is dead. Yeah.

In essence, the Policy actually is a good idea. In practice as written, you get what happened here at Grumpy's office.... just another thing that makes him Grumpy.

First off, according to the guy tasked to set this up, the company could not find any digital displays capable of talking to our non-EMS frequency app smaller than the huge LED boxes with retina-burning redness aimed at our faces from just six feet away, now hanging on the wall a few feet from our desk. Hanging. By zip ties. Real professional looking. We would like to reprogram them to scroll game scores or something. They are that big. I cannot fathom that a company owning $billions$ in assets is unable to find a way to convert data in some magical way to be viewed on an appropriately-sized LED number display. OK, whatever.

Secondly, as it turns out, of the four frequencies displayed, the two on one side are measured from stations about three miles apart, while the two on the other side are perhaps ten miles apart. This will be very useful if the system is split neatly in half down the middle of these specific cities, so that each side is attached to isolated islands. The reality is, splits occur at major substations where one or a handful of major lines ties one region to another. Cities do not get split into independently-surviving halves in collapses.

Yip-de-flipping-yay. We're compliant. With ugly hanging oversized scoreboards of no value except the once-a-decade blackout, except that they are of no value unless we split this or that city in half, which happens once every never. But we're compliant!

Friday, July 10, 2009

. . . and another indistinguishable speck appears . . .

Hello. Are you lost?

Just checking.

In the massive universe of blogs, I hardly expect a following.

However, after having observed the therapeutic quality of how a few other specific blogs helped their authors, and in many ways for the same reasons those came into existence, this blog is intended to serve more as a vent for me than entertainment or serious value for you.

Of course that's what the other guys said, and they eventually became a source of great value.

On this one... don't get your hopes up.

I am a power system dispatcher for a major electric utility company. I am one of those faceless guys hunched over a console with a vast collective of computer monitors and widgets surrounding me, trying to monitor the high voltage power grid in my area of control (which represents roughly about 100,000 square miles) to prevent injuries and disaster, protect assets worth billions, and ensure the steady flow of energy to the struggling US economic machine.

Does this guy's job look hard? This guy is just one of a bunch of other plant, line and substation guys who have to answer to me.

It takes just three mouse clicks to operate switches and breakers on the system. Do the wrong one..... kabooms and/or fatalities become very likely, or if we're lucky it'll just be economic losses in the low $$ millions.

No pressure.

This is an example of the kind of room I work in.

For kicks and giggles, I am also a firefighter. Some of those stories will undoubtedly find their way in here, too. They tend to be more interesting, anyway. Power dispatchers are pretty boring, after all.

I also used to be a stormchaser (for reporting/warning through the NWS, not for the 'thrill'). My wife says I obviously have some need to be where lives are on the line.

So, anyway, that's where we'll start. Here we go. We'll see what happens. If anything.