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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Office silliness update

Background posts:

The Pre-Plan
Follow up to The Pre-Plan
The Silly Fallout Continues
Speechless..... can't think of a title any more

Just a short update.

The chairs to go with the too-tall table arrived two or three weeks ago. I have yet to see anyone sit in them, nor have I ever seen the new table dirty since it arrived:

We got a new coffee maker and new coffee dispensers. Nothing wrong with the old ones. The old and perfectly good coffee maker rests next to the recycle and trash bins in the background:

I may have to look into giving the old power company coffee machine a new fire station home if it is otherwise destined for the landfill. Station 53's coffee maker is crap, and this would be a huge upgrade.

Lastly, the void that used to be where a properly-sized fridge would go is collecting detritus. Ironically, the new fridge was supposed to get its own water line so it could provide us cold filtered water and let us discontinue the water cooler vendor. No water line yet, but the cooler fits well back there. You can also see the sad, sorry, laid-off old coffee dispensers. And the cute red trash can lost its lid within a week of me taking the last picture of it.

No seems to be griping any more, though. They've apparently been desensitized to the insanity.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

That had to look goofy

The Minitor V came to life. Medical call, unconscious breather at a middle school two station districts away. Sometimes I head to medicals that far away just in case they need a hand, as they can always turn me back, but in this particular case I was pretty beat. Since my response was not mandatory, I decided to stay put. For some reason, though, I didn't reset the pager.

Not one minute later tones for Small City next to us came out, and they were dispatched to the same call, which had now been upgraded to a 13 year old not breathing, CPR in progress. SCFD's station is the next closest to the school after our first-due Engine 55, so adding them to the call made sense.

But man... of all calls to blow off.

So, Engine 51 and I were very soon also en route to assist. Mainly I was thinking that today was going to be the worst day for some family, and try as I might I could of course not avoid imagining what I would do if I was the parent taking that call from the school. Every parent's nightmare.

About 2/3 of the way there, SCFD was dispatched to another medical of their own. SCFD Engine 2 took it in. I had to pass through Small City to get to the school myself, but this new call did not concern me because I knew SCFD E2 would not cross paths with me.

Nearing the school, I approached a red traffic light and flopped the siren to a new noise. I thought it was remarkable that traffic was holding up even though I was a block away yet, looks like they were stopping even before I flopped the siren. Weird.

(Red flag! Red flag!)

I came up short at the red light and prepared to take a left... and there was SCFD E1, code 3, on my left. My cross traffic had stopped early because they saw the other guy. They're bigger, so I deferred. They turned left (directionally the same way I had been traveling), and then I turned left, running code 3 back the way they had come from.

That had to look goofy to the motorists at the intersection. Made both of us look clueless.

What's the deal here? I cut the siren. Either the kid was too far gone and Engine 55 cut them loose (highly unlikely), or it wasn't a serious call after all. Wish I had known SCFD E1 was responding into my path. This is my biggest gripe with Mobile Dispatch Terminals (MDTs, the mounted laptops in emergency vehicles). Units can respond via the data link without ever hitting the radio, and depriving other area units of awareness of what the other big red trucks are doing, or that they are even responding in the first place. I'd like to see an automated voice repeater that parrots unit responses and such over the radio based on what guys punch in on their MDTs

Turns out the school got a little over excited about a seizure. No big deal. So Engine 55 cut SCFD E1 loose right before SCFD's other call came in. But, in the excitement of the anticipated CPR in progress, Engine 55 didn't pick up on my response, so they didn't cancel me by radio when they arrived and found things not nearly so dire.

Hence, brief excitement and a keystone kops moment for the public. Ugh.

That got me to thinking about two other incidents of interest.

Incident #1:

I had Engine 51 way out of position to get fuel, and then got dropped for a fire investigation about three blocks from Station 51. It's a long way to go since I am so far out, but off we go. Engine 54 will get there first this time.

A couple of minutes later, we got dropped for another call, in Engine 55's area. I ignore it, they'll take it. What I didn't know is that E55 was not staffed that day. E54 knew this, but E54 had not picked up on how far out of position I was. E54, assuming I was on top of the first call, diverted to the second one. Somehow, not assigning blame, I missed that. About two minutes later, Engine 51 and Engine 54 met at the top of a rise and passed each other code 3 in opposite directions. A short flurry of radio communications cleared things up, and we each continued where we were going.

That had to look goofy. Certainly the radio exchange probably sounded goofy, too. Oops.

Incident #2:

I was working at Station 55. SCFD was out on a call when a chimney fire was reported on the edge of their district. E55 was dispatched along with SCFD E2. We were actually closer. Dispatch came on and advised that the homeowner was reporting the fire out. As first due, dispatch deferred to us as to whether we would continue. Since it was not our district, I then deferred to SCFD E2. Engine 2 waved us off and said they would investigate.

We were really close, but oh well. I went around the block and headed home. Then who should appear coming up the road? Engine 2. Running hot.

That was the first (and so far only) time I have been in a fire engine, and pulled over to yield to another fire engine going to a call.

That had to look goofy.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Who's got the power?

Part of the reason so many power dispatchers have such self-righteous bad attitudes is the rule that grants such strong power to the on duty dispatcher. The guy on the desk has not just the authority, but the responsibility, to unilaterally take whatever actions are necessary to save his portion of the grid and/or prevent damage to his portion of the grid. Failure to take these prescribed actions within the required timeline (generally within 15 minutes but the sooner the better), when warranted, can result in multi-million penalties to the company that failed to perform.

The directives are like standing EMS orders for paramedics. When time is absolutely of the essence, critical minutes are shaved off by leaving predetermined directions so no time is wasted getting approvals.

The precedent type of incident for requiring this rule in the power industry has been repeated over and over again, when preventable blackouts and/or major component damage have occurred because a weak-willed dispatcher felt that a supervisor or manager (invariably one who is not on duty and doesn't answer their cell phone) cannot be contacted to hand down a blessing. So the dispatcher leaves a voice mail. The supervisor eventually calls back..... to ask why all the lights are out. What, you left a message?

Every system control center with NERC-certified dispatchers on duty is now required to have a notice posted in a conspicuous location in the control room that states, in essence, that the dispatcher has clear authority to do basically whatever they determine is necessary to save the free world without requiring any kind of approval from above. The notice must be signed by the highest-ranking official of the company. Even failure to have this notice posted (whether company policy is in line as intended or not), can result in a fine.

They take this stuff pretty seriously, I guess. Incidentally, this rule is the same one that allows me to tell the same CEO trying to micromanage me from behind my chair to either get lost or kindly assume full responsibility for my desk while I go out to Delmonico's for a bite.

So, with that background out of the way, the story. You knew a story was coming.

A notoriously under-supported section of our system, a long, 46kV subtransmission loop, has long suffered from low voltage. In fire terms, think of constantly trying to provide adequate pressure and GPMs to 1,000' of 2.5" line. It doesn't matter how much pump pressure you've got at the source, up to the point that you burst the hose line at the pump panel, you just can't get more than a piddle out of the tip.

Electric transmission suffers the same thing if there are not adequate shunt capacitor banks (in-line relaying pumps, if you will) along the way. Adding cap banks is just a cheap workaround, anyway, bound to get you in trouble in the long run as far as system planning goes. The intelligent thing to do is shorten the transmission distances by plugging in a new substation somewhere in the loop, fed off of a good 115-230kV high voltage source, to inject voltage (pressure) right where it is needed.

Generally, many subtransmission and virtually all distribution loops are operated with a "normal open" switch somewhere in the middle. This is done so that a fault in the loop only dumps half of the loop instead of the whole shebang. Then, when you find the problem, you can isolate it by opening nearby switches on either side, and then close the "normal open" to feed the back portion of the bad side off of the other half of the loop that is still hot. Fix stuff up, then switch it all back to normal.

Well, this bad section of ours is in such bad shape from load growth (new construction, new customers, more demand, etc.) that the "normal open" switch lost its status years ago, and the loop is kept closed all the time. Before this was done, the far remote ends of each side of the open loop had horrible voltage problems. Closing in the loop helped only slightly. The Engineering conclusion was, if Planning won't upgrade the loop, better to close it in and risk the whole loop to occasional trips than to damage customer equipment at the remote ends with chronic ongoing low voltage conditions.

Still with me? The story is still coming.

So, this particular 46kV loop has a small power plant on it. A weak, persnickety, temperamental power plant. It likes chocolate and to be told it is pretty before it will come online, but you can improve your chances with a nice card in an embossed envelope.

Well, once in a while, as circumstances dictate, this loop has something break on it and has to go out for repair. This is hardly surprising since, as you recall, it is already old and decrepit. This open configuration resulted in the Persnickety Steam Plant hanging on one end of the loop, charged with the unhappy task of propping up voltage at its end of the line.

Murphy stepped in, and Persnickety tripped offline.

Voltage went to crap. But not quite to crap that I felt compelled to shed load (black some people out) to prop voltage up. Back to fire terms.... my interior attack guys only had about 60psi at the tip. They aren't happy, but they can sort of work with it for a while as long as things don't get worse. If it goes downhill, we'll pull them out, but for now our fingers are crossed.

Still, I really need Persnickety back.

So, after a couple of hours, the Persnickety Control Room Operator called and said they were ready to come back online. One problem though.... voltage is too low on their station service (external power they're getting off the weak end of the loop to start the unit), and the source is too weak to roll the unit online.

Persnickety is not coming back until I raise voltage. I have no cap banks to boost voltage with. There is only one way to raise voltage.

Drop load.

Lights out for a few feeders, several hundred customers, at least until Persnickety rolls up. That might take an hour or so.

So be it. I gave the orders to the distribution dispatcher for Small Municipal Utility with the feeders that I wanted to whack.

He balked. Had to check with his boss, he said.

Uh, no you don't. I am giving you a Directive (very important perk-your-ears-up word in this business), to trip feeders blank, blank and blank until further notice.

SMU dispatcher was not happy, but knows we are both on recorded lines and follows the order. He knows that the issue is in my court and that I am taking responsibility for the outage orders.

Hint: That's what that notice on the wall is all about, baby.

Ninety minutes later, Persnickety Steam Plant got a good shoulder massage and box of bon bons, and decided to go ahead and come online. After another half hour or so when it was clear that Persnickety was going to stay with us, I gave permission to the SMU dispatcher to restore his feeders.

They'll send us a bill for the troubles it caused, forward whiny customer lawsuits, whatever. That's fine, that's exactly how the game is played.

However, the next day I got an email directly from the SMU supervisor/manager, blasting me for having the gall to issue those orders, and providing me with a list of phone numbers that must be called to secure permission should I (or anyone here, for that matter) ever try that stunt again. He was on a pretty high horse, atop a gilded pedestal, in his ivory tower, and was speaking down to lowly me from on high accordingly.

Yeah buddy. Fail. I forwarded that note to my boss.

Mr. SMU boss got some joint correspondence from our legal department and our upper management detailing the FERC/NERC rules and our obligations to them, that SMU is in our footprint and subject to our authority accordingly, and that if he wanted to stand his ground, we would be happy to forward the big multi-million dollar fines to him.


The written apology he sent us back was rather polite, actually.

Remember, one person's ivory tower is someone else's remote guard shack with a space heater and AM radio on the shelf.

And that long rambly story, is to explain why we have a bad self-righteous attitude. Because as a rule, our ivory tower really is at the top, and we're used to getting our way.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

He'll sit this one out

As technology has improved, and electronics widgets get smaller and smaller, I wonder at what point things will stop shrinking. Portable radios are getting pretty small, and cell phones downright tiny. Yesterday's cassette-playing Walkman could give you around 12 songs from the one cassette you put in it, but today's eraser-sized MP3 players can serve up many hundreds of tunes. At some point the shrinkage has to stop so we don't just lose stuff outright. Can't you see it coming? Oh my gosh, I just lost my cell phone down the sink drain! Help!!

Those of us who've been around a while know it wasn't always like that.

Rewind many years.

I was working a fill-in shift for a career guy out sick. It was sometime after midnight, and everyone had either hit the sack or dozed off in the recliners. The horn sounded and the lights came on for a routine-sounding medical call. Tony, Clark and I were were on the Medic. Tony was on the recliner so made the pole first, with me right behind and Clark coming out of the dorm behind me.

As Clark hit the pole and spun around on it with flair, his Motorola HT600 portable radio, a classic "brick" piece of hardware, was swung out slightly by the centrifugal force. The bottom of his radio caught the edge of the "pole hole", and as Clark went down, the radio was stripped from his belt clip and stayed behind on the edge.

But just for a second. Then, it too decided to go downstairs the fast way.

Clark hit the pad, but before he could take a step, his HT600 clobbered him on the skull. Hard. Those HT600's were heavy enough to be used as a last-resort blunt force weapon, so having one dropped on your head from 10-15' is sure going to leave a mark.

Clark grunted and went into a crouch, holding his head. Tried to shake it off. Reached for the radio and lost his balance, sat on the floor, head in his hands. It was at this point I noticed something was wrong.

"Clark! What's wrong?"

"Radio hit me in the head. Give me a second."

He stood up, a little unsteady, and then climbed into the rear of the medic. I watched him as he sat down on the bench and tried to focus.

"Are you OK, man?"


"You know, I'm going to sit this one out. Sorry."

Clark was a little shaky as he climbed back out and sat on the floor. Tony came over to see what the delay was, and the consensus was that we'd just take the call with two guys, Tony told Clark to go wake someone else up and get looked over, and off we went to whatever it was we were going to.

Clark ended up taking the rest of the shift off but stayed at the station until shift change. I think someone else drove him home in the morning. He recovered.

We were all a lot more careful about the state of our various accessories when going down the pole after that.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cop blogs are dropping like flies

Sad to report, another one of my favorite law enforcement blogs went away during my hiatus.

According to the link in my blogroll on the left, The Roanoke Cop posted a note titled "Last Post" about a week ago, which I am sure explained at least in some oblique way why the blog was going away, and the blog is now "invitation only", which is really just the fastest way to block access to your blog without deleting it outright. As such I didn't get to read the 'last post' before the blog was locked.

Bummer. But I get it.

I often wondered how he could remain anonymous when it was probably fairly obvious to many in RPD who likely was the author. As an anonymous blogger myself, I wonder what would happen if I were to be outed. Accordingly, I hold back just a little bit so that I won't get burned seriously if the veil ever gets drawn back.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Back in the Control Center

I have returned from a weeklong training session. I had a lot of fun, picked up a handful of CEH's, and met a lot of folks I often only hear on the phone or radio.

The world of power dispatchers is an exclusive one. There just aren't that many of us, you see. Last I heard, there are only about 3,000 NERC-certified dispatchers in all of North America, and something less than half of those are actually in dispatching. The rest are supervisory-types, power marketers, engineers, and other peripherally-involved utility employees who are not required to have it, but feel that the NERC cert helps them do their jobs better or looks good on a resume. Really, the NERC cert is all but useless even to us actual dispatchers, as very very little of what is learned in the certification process is ever used on the job anyway. The CEH stuff brings a little value, though, once you're in the club.

I have two NERC certificates (a rarity in the industry, since one of mine superseded the other anyway). Nonetheless, owning two NERC cert serial numbers does look pretty good on the ol' resume.

This small dispatcher world is amusing sometimes. One of the Reliability Coordinators (persons who oversee multiple dispatch centers) I was sitting next to works in a facility about 1,400 miles away from my control center. He knew a dispatcher I worked with at my last dispatch gig, which was over 1,000 miles farther away from his office. Not just 'knew' him, either, but knew his nickname and had played golf with him. This RC also works with another RC-in-training who I helped train as a dispatcher in my previous job years ago and miles away.

It gets better. This same RC also works with another guy at that RC center who happens to be the very guy who trained my Dad (the Smooth Substation Operator) when he joined his small municipal utility decades ago. Yeah, Dad retired a few years ago, so you know this dude is crusty! Still going, though. Amazing.

It gets better. This same RC knows, from his previous power company job in the midwest, a dispatcher with whom I served as a firefighter in my first fire agency many many years ago. From before either he or I became dispatchers ourselves. How cool is that? Here's two guys working a midsized midwestern fire department, who end up going separate ways, and through turns of fate both end up as dispatchers at companies far away from each other. Really, it should come as no surprise that we would end up knowing the same people. So here, after all these years, I get to reconnect with a firefighter friend who is now also a power dispatcher.

Our small power dispatcher world is a pretty neat club to be a part of.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. I see it is high time for another tutorial, and I've got some other things on my mind from my time off. I'm back now, so you'll be hearing more of my mindless drivel in the next few days.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Grumpy Dispatcher on the Road

I am on a business trip to attend a continuing education session this week. Much like we firefighters need CE hours to maintain our EMS certs, we power dispatchers put in a lot of hours to remain certified to run the grid, too. Since there aren't that many of us in the big picture, we tend to cluster in groups of around 30 or so for these sessions, and then disperse back to our control centers abroad.

As such, I will be off the blog for several more days.

Catch you when I get back.