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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Clue Meter is Reading Zero

We have a sort-of entry-level position here in the control facility for a 24/7 security monitoring desk. Their job is to monitor all of our substation and communications facilities for security and data link problems.

If a gate or building is opened after hours without explanation and they cannot find out who is there, they call the PD local to the facility. If an environmental sensor shows that the cooling or heating to a building has failed, they call out a repair crew to investigate. If a datalink fails, they call a comm tech out to fix it. That kind of stuff. They don't run the grid, but they do most of the irritating fluffy non-critical stuff so that we dispatchers are free to focus on the seriously critical stuff, like not killing field crews or blowing up multi-million $$$ transformers and the like.

You don't need any special experience to come into that security job, but it is nice if you are intelligent, and inclined to proficiency at technically-oriented stuff. For the most part, these guys are. If they impress, they may be selected for training to pass the NERC exam and get certified, and might get a crack at being a dispatcher in the future.

But I digress.

The security guy on duty comes over to my console.

Security Guy: Hey, just wanted to let you know, I've got a low fuel alarm on the diesel generator at the Holly Peak microwave site.

An aside: To facilitate secure communications with remote substation outposts without telecom access, microwave signals are utilized. Frequently, stand-alone microwave towers are installed to talk to several nearby outlying substations and link the data with us here at the mother ship. These microwave sites are moderately critical, because the loss of one can result in loss of view and control to multiple substations. As such, they almost always have on-site backup diesel generators.

Grumpy Dispatcher: Is the generator running? Is the loss of AC alarm in? (loss of AC means its local electric service has gone dead)

SG: No, nothing else but the low fuel alarm. The alarm has been in for a while, I was waiting for it to clear.

An aside: Some fluffy alarms come in and out for a variety of reasons, say due to fluctuating temperatures or atmospheric interference with microwave signals. No reason to call anyone out for some of these until they are sustained. There are no plausible reasons for a 'false' or 'temporary' low fuel alarm, though.

GD: (looks at the clock, it is 0420) How long? When did it come in?

SG: I think at about 0130.

Three hours, he waits, to tell me about this?? Teeth clenching ensues.

An extended aside: So what brings in a low fuel alarm? Just two possibilities exist: (1) The fuel is low, or (2) The sensor is faulty. The probability of a sensor randomly dying at 0130 is astronomically remote. These are just fuel gauges, c'mon. They don't have an established history of just up and dying. So let's go with the more likely cause: The fuel is low.

What causes the fuel to be low? Just three possibilities exist: (1) The generator is running, consuming it. (2) It is leaking out, or (3) It is being removed by some other means. Hello... these things hold 50-100 gallons, and as a rule are in the middle of nowhere. Checked fuel prices lately?  Did any of you really need me to walk you through that process if you'd been given a few minutes to consider the possibilities on your own?

Well, option (1) is out. Generator is not running, as there is no alarm indicating its run status has changed, and the site has also not lost its AC feed.  That leaves.....

Option (2), a leak.  It's a haz mat incident and a system reliability degradation, requiring immediate callout.

Option (3), removal.  It's a crime in progress and a system reliability degradation, requiring immediate callout.

Like I said, teeth clenching.

By now it is far too late, so no reason to get excited. Whoever was there stealing the fuel is now long, long gone.

I ran through the same line of deductive reasoning with the guy, slowly and step by step, to help him through the logical process.

The light eventually clicked on and he finally looked alarmed.

SG: I guess I should call someone out right away, then?

GD: Yeah. Three hours ago.

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