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Monday, May 31, 2010

A Tale of Five Monkeys

Training new dispatchers can be a serious drag. Especially when they come in from outside the company and are already well experienced. They come in with all of their established habits and ideas on how things should be done, and have to be beaten into submission so that they can absorb the new way of doing things at their new home. Right or wrong, this is the new world. Live in it.

Not that all of their ideas are bad. In fact, they bring lots of good ones to the table. But, folks - and these clearly applies to fire guys, too - your training period is not the time to impose your old ways on your new world. Once you're in, established, and respected, then people just might pretend to listen to your ideas.

And by the time that comes along, you may realize that the way things are done here is actually with merit.

So, the tale.

You take five monkeys. Put them in a large cage with a bunch of bananas tied to the ceiling, out of reach, and give them a stepladder.

Monkeys are intelligent, and they soon get the stepladder into position. At that point, blast them all with a fire hose. A lot. Knock over the ladder with it, too.

Whoa, they say, wet, sore and half-drowned. What gives???

After a little while, they recover and dry off a little bit, and man those bananas smell good. One of them grabs the ladder, sets it up, and as soon as a foot is on the rung, you blast them again. All of them. Make them remember that this is the worst hose attack ever.

They are smart, they get it. No one picks up the ladder, and they accept that the bananas are forever off limits.

Then take one monkey out, and put in a new one. New monkey puts things together quickly and goes for the ladder. The other monkeys watch warily, and as soon as new monkey puts his foot on - before the hose nails them all - the other four grab new monkey, throw him down, and beat the crap out of him.

Bewildered and sore, new monkey nurses his wounds, but within an hour or so he goes for the ladder again, and the other four once again promptly give him a smack down. New monkey gets it: No bananas.

Then switch another monkey out, and add new monkey #2. New monkey #1 knows by his experience that for reasons unclear, no one is allowed to have bananas, so joins right in with the others as new monkey #2 gets his whuppin'.

Continue switching monkeys out. Pretty soon, you have five new monkeys who have never been blasted with a fire hose, but no one is getting any bananas, and none of them know why.

Moral #1: Just because you don't understand the rule does not mean it is of no value. The "dumb" rule just might be keeping you from surprise injury or death.

Alternatively, I have to admit to Moral #2: Once in a while it makes sense for the leaders to revisit why the rule was put in place, because the monkey-blasting fire hose might be gone now.

In the meantime, shut it and do what you're told.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Amazing Kitchen Developments!

There is a very, very long story behind this. Thankfully, I have already written all about it here, so all you have to do is go back and read it again. Go visit the restroom and refill your coffee before you start.

OK, ready? Read these:

The Pre-Plan

Follow up to The Pre-Plan,

The Silly Fallout Continues,

Speechless..... can't think of a title any more,

and lastly, Office silliness update

Off topic: Today I noted that the pretty red garbage can with the missing lid is MIA. No idea how long it has been gone.

Back on topic.

So in summary, the transmission operations department was offered a chance to use a bunch of money on upgrades, but was not given the option to bank the money for future needs. It was use it or lose it.

From a global company point of view, if upgrades are not required, I'd like to see the extra funds in my paycheck or to hire more help. However, from a management point of view, I can see why those in charge opted to grab the money and run.

How it was subsequently spent was oh so flaky, as I have documented in excess. Well-meaning, but ill-executed. The epitome of the execution was the new refrigerator that was larger than the old one, and did not fit in its alcove. Therefore, ever since, it has sat out away from the wall, at a right angle, leaving the back corner inaccessible. It's ugly back there. Dust, garbage, food detritus. No one can really reach back there to clean. And come on, it looks plain silly.

There's been a little light-hearted ridicule about the spendy upgrades, especially in light of the unrelated decision to cut off many of the little extra kitchen perks. The runner up to the sideways fridge of course being the fancy table.

So, to stop drawing attention to the problem, we've moved on to other office and operational problems....

...until recently, when an subtle signal was sent downstream by a VP higher up: WTH is with that kitchen arrangement? Something must be done! And viola!, the skids are greased, and even more money has been made available to fix the problem. Lots more.

Yes. The entire kitchen is going to be remodeled, prompted mainly by the oversize fridge purchase.

That's the ticket. You know, I can't quite tell, but our boss might be brilliant. He might have actually done all this on purpose with the new kitchen in sight all along. You never know.

So if you were the manager making these decisions in the beginning:

If you declined the upgrades in the first place, letting someone else have the funds but owning a clean conscience that you caused no waste, and kept your happy serviceable kitchen, you made the sensible call.

If you allowed the upgrades, owned up to the oversize fridge and traded it for the right size, you made a wasteful call but at least your kitchen doesn't look silly.

If you allowed the upgrades and deliberately bought on oversize fridge to obliquely force a complete kitchen remodel, you're brilliant, and made a really great call. Either that or you have exceptional dumb luck, but you'll never tell.

Remains to be seen if the counters will be red. Pictures will be forthcoming, but the work is months away.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Re-Characterizing the Blog

In the past few days, the hairs on the back of my neck have been standing up when I think about this blog and who might be reading it. Anonymity is not forever in the small world of fire/rescue online, and especially amongst power dispatchers. I mean, really, how many power dispatcher/firefighters are there?

So, I seriously considered dropping the blog and vanishing. But its therapeutic value is not lost on me, I am better for being able to write stuff, like most other bloggers I read.

I've ranted about stuff in both jobs that irritates me, usually at outsiders, but not always. But let's be honest. The vast majority of the power dispatchers and firefighters I work with are great people, but you might not know that from the percentage of rants I was punching out compared to deserved attaboy posts.

So, with that in consideration, so as to not offend anyone I work with who was the target of a rant (even though I probably really like that person most of the time otherwise), and also so as to steer clear of commenting on or drawing any attention to my current places of employment, I am slightly re-characterizing the blog.

I have removed quite a few of the old posts. Well, set them to draft status anyway. I might clean them up and re-issue some of them some day, but probably not. Mainly I have removed almost all of the posts that have anything to do with my current fire department and my current power company. Exceptions are posts of value, attaboys, and lessons learned. The remaining rants are attached to previous places of employ, far enough in the past that everyone involved should laugh about it now.

So, going forward, I hope to be nicer and less whiny. And will police my posts so that it doesn't matter if my cover is blown, I won't have said anything that will make my employment situation at all dicey at either place.

So, here we go.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lessons Learned and Reaffirmed

Got dropped for a traffic accident, details unknown.

First unit arrives in the area, nothing found. How many callers? Just the one.

This is the same result we get when someone pulls over to tie down the junk in their pickup truck, or somehow has driven into a ditch but is able to self-extract before drawing too much attention. Other units on the way back off a bit.

Initial unit decides to go a few more miles to be sure.

Whoa. Good call.

First unit makes it just over one more mile, and then comes on the air reporting a car vs. semi accident, all lanes totally blocked, and with a fuel spill.

Those of us that backed off, un-backed off.

Lesson Reaffirmed: It isn't an unfounded call until proven to be unfounded.

Turned out there was no other car. All those bits of wreckage assumed to be the remains of a splattered passenger vehicle were actually from the truck. He just ran off the road, hit the hillside, then jacknifed back onto the roadway. Just the one patient, and though he's clearly had his bell rung and is bleeding from many superficial locations, he'll probably be fine. The truck cab ended up on the far side of the cargo trailer from the arriving medic, and both sides of the blocked roadway are essentially impassable to an ambulance cot. Not going to be easy to go around the trailer safely, but the vehicle is stabilized, upright, and secured, and there is some room in front of the trailer axles....

Lesson Learned: An ambulance cot, when fully lowered, just fits under some of those low-riding moving company cargo trailers - as long as there is room between the trailer axles and the bottom compartments.

We ran out of absorbent, as catching all the fuel from the nearly-full saddle tank was beyond our first-response capability. But wait, when we checked through the hole in the moving company's cargo trailer to perhaps identify potential hazards, it was found to be empty save for several bales of furniture padding blankets. Ding. We hauled a bunch of those out and laid them on the spill.

The haz mat cleanup contractors showed up, and approved of the method with a nod and a chuckle.

Lesson Reaffirmed: In a pinch, remember to think (and look) outside the ol' box. Or in this case inside the box.

Just another day of taking care of business, really, which is what we're here for.

Sorry for the previous drought of posts. I went overboard and ran out of creative things to write about. Not that I was ever creative before, or that this post is creative now. Blah blah blah. Y'all that still hang around and aren't tired of my act are so patient with me, and I appreciate that.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

If at First You Fail, then Fail Again

So the little black gadget on my belt beeped and starting squawking. Something about a truck and some power lines down. Close by. Bah. It immediately sounded like a two hat job for me, which can either be really interesting, or really complicated and bad. Two-hatting a job tends to cause problems more than help a situation, despite the occasional report of it working out well.

Such as it is. I came online and reported en route.

I arrived first in front of the dispatch intersection, the 14kV feeder running along the road was intact as far as I could see in both directions. No wrecked trucks in sight. No traffic backed up for an obstruction. Nothing.

Some radio discussion followed. The rescue and engine showed up, and they hadn't seen anything either.

We were about to ask for a callback to the RP, when I looked over into the gravel/sand pit facility which covers a lot of acreage adjacent to where we're at. There are two sets of towers holding three 115kV lines running through there, well off the road.

Well, nothing else was working out, so I went in there, down the dirt road, past some trees. Sure enough, there are two dump trucks side-by-side at the edge of a sand storage area, dump boxes extended upward, both inches from the same phase of one of the big lines.

Internal voice says: Dude, why are those lines so close to the ground?

I stopped as one of the workers approached, and asked if they had contacted the lines. Yup. Anyone hurt? Nope. No signs of smoke or fire, lucky boneheads. I radioed in the actual location, and then called the power dispatch center on my cell.

Zach, my fellow dispatcher, answered.

Hey man, did you guys just have a lockout on one of the Collarville 115 lines? 

Yeah, it reclosed the first time but then tripped again and locked out a few minutes later. How'd you know?

Well, my friend, I've got a good tale forming up to share later, but for now, tag the tripped line out under my name.

With the hazard mitigated, no fire and no hurt people, the engine and rescue and other POV arrivals all bailed out and left me to my two-hatting. And the paperwork. Getting there first does have drawbacks.

So, what happened?

Well, I was unloading when I hit the wire. It was really loud. It blew out my tires.

Yeah, it sure did. You're lucky you didn't get whacked in the truck or caught in it with fire on all sides, buddy. What about this other truck next to yours, how did it get here too? All of its tires are also scorched and flat, but I just can't quite accept that what I am about to hear could have actually happened.

Well, I got out of my truck to see what happened, and I was looking at my tires, when Charlie there came in. My truck was in the way and I couldn't move it, so I told him to pull alongside me instead.

Oh no, he didn't.

Yeah, of course he did. Blam! Flash-bang, blown tires, smoke. Two startled drivers.

It was after the second whack that the first driver noticed the wires. Ohhhhh, that's what happened! We have a winner.

Un-FREAKING-believable! One guy almost gets dead, and then minutes later is unable to assess his near-miss enough to prevent the next guy from doing precisely the same thing. So here are two dump trucks, side-by-side, boxes up, tires blown. I cannot count the number of narrow escapes these guys combined for in this single incident.

The only thing that likely saved the first guy from getting whacked while exiting, and helped keep either truck from catching fire, is that the blown tires dropped each truck several inches, out of reach of the line. Else both trucks would have again been smacked by one or two recloses each.

Sadly I didn't get pictures, but plenty were taken by others.

And oh yeah, why were the wires so low as to be in reach of the dump trucks? Well, it was a very large facility, and over time they had in-filled the land under the wires as to raise it. A lot. Over a period of several years. And no one noticed how close they were getting to the wires, until that day.


Moving Water Fail

In Backwards Universe, water moves fire engines.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Despite the Best Made Plans, Part II

So what does a power plant do for power when it trips?

In the case of steam plants that have enormous amounts of auxiliary systems, just dropping dead would damage and gunk up a variety of systems that I won't spend much time explaining on here. Suffice to say, it is Bad.

Therefore, power plants tend to draw their power, known as "station service", from the substation that the plant is attached to. You see, if the unit trips, the substation generally stays online. One or two breakers is all it takes to separate the unit from the grid, and there is no reason at all to dump the whole station. Alternatively, the plant may have a station service connection to the closest distribution feeder circuit, which is not necessarily even attached to the plant's substation. Or, just as likely, the plant will be capable of working off of either source.

But what happens in a regional outage, when everything trips, a bona fide area blackout?

Well, power plants that need it use pretty much the same kind of system that hospitals and 911 centers tend to use; an on-site, automatic Diesel generator, albeit on a larger scale. Sometimes more than one if station service demand is high. In the event of the loss of all station service sources, the generator kicks in within a few seconds, hopefully before the conveyors and pumps and belts and blowers and what have you get clogged up or damaged.

Now, a typical large steam plant may require around 10% of its rated output for typical station service, which is substantial. That would require equally substantial diesel generators. But this happens so rarely, it is not cost effective to plan on running the power plant's office lighting, vending machines, coffee pots, really anything considered non-essential during the rare area blackout that happens every decade or so.

These days, offices and computer data centers have large uninterruptible power supply systems on dedicated circuits that exclusively serve essential applications, but let everything else drop in a power outage. This is not a new practice, as power plants have done this for ages. But instead of running essential servers, etc, the backup generators run all those auxiliary systems and keep the turbine shaft slowly rotating so it does not warp out of balance, until full power is restored and the plant comes back online.

So, there's the setup for Despite the Best Made Plans, Part II.

When a large power facility, with three turbines totaling a combined 430MW, completed a years-long project and added a fourth turbine rated for 550MW by itself, the on-site backup generation got a very necessary upgrade as well. Every station circuit was scrutinized to determine which were critical, so the others could be left off the emergency system and help keep the demand on the emergency system manageable.

Well, everything went peachy, everything tested good. The new turbine got its kinks worked out over a few months and then was released for service.

The plant personnel faithfully tested the backup generator every week, flopping the critical systems over to it for a few hours at a time, and it worked great.

And then, the Day of Big Fun finally arrived.

What caused the regional blackout isn't important. It was notable, but not quite worth big national news attention.

This particular power station got whacked, all four turbines tripped, and all station service sources went out. The new backup generation system was ready to show its stuff, and true to plan it fired right up. Yay!

And then, about ten minutes later, it died.

I type too much, let's cut to the end.

There was a very small diesel tank located by the generator, fed from a very large diesel tank located a short distance from the building for safety purposes. When the small tank got low, a float sensor activated a pump to transfer fuel from the big tank, refilling the little one as needed.

Guess which critical system wasn't on a critical circuit. Yup, the transfer pump's dedicated circuit was not attached to the generator it served.


The fix wasn't very expensive, really, but the same can't be said for how the problem was discovered.

- - - -

Also see: Despite the Best Made Plans (Part I)

Friday, May 7, 2010


It's been done before, but this one was satisfying.
  • Your totaled 2004 Honda Accord: $16,000
  • The 2009 Corvette you totaled: $45,000
  • Reckless Driving fine for rear-ending another car at high speed on a flat, straight road with no traffic lights, stop signs, or even any intersections, in broad daylight: $1,500 and 30-day suspended license
  • Increase in annual insurance premiums: $600
  • Marijuana for you, and the two cute girls in the back seat, on the way to school: $25
  • Minor in possession of drug paraphernalia and DUI: Class "C" felony arrest
  • Getting your ass chewed off by your mom while you stand there in cuffs as the girls look on: PRICELESS
Junior was bloodshot, loose and in a good mood when we arrived, and surprisingly no one was injured. It was lightly drizzling, we were only two blocks from the school, and the girls opted to wait for Junior's mom so they didn't have to walk.

They apparently had not previously met Junior's mom.

They walked.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

You Make the Call - Noisy Transformer: What Happened

It's been a sort of busy morning and you're still getting up to speed after a few days off. You are well aware of the transformer that was switched out of service months ago, because it has created quite a bottleneck of other problems, but you and the other dispatchers have learned to work around it regarding the day-to-day operation of the grid.

Transformers are very expensive, and usually impossible to repair, but this one has not given up its exact problem, and after a good once-over, flush and inspection, it was test-energized successfully, although it made some funny sounds that concerned a substation operator enough that he made a call into the control center about.

But today is apparently the day that the bosses want it switched the rest of the way in, and although you're knee deep in other jobs, the switching orders and procedure to put it all the way back in service have just landed on your desk, and crews are already en route to switch it in within an hour or so.

I wasn't the guy on the desk. The dispatcher who had this land in front of him took the position of 'no way in hell am I going to approve this on my own'. He notified several other area supervisor-boss types with direct interest in the situation (and the power to call it off) of the decision to put it back, shared the particulars of his concern, and made sure that they were on record either by email or on the recorded phone as either approving the procedure or at least not calling a stop to it.

Transformers, you see, don't have moving parts with which to generate noises (except phase shifters, but that's another story and those moving parts would never remotely do anything like this one is doing... and oh yeah, this one is not a phase shifter). When energized at high voltage, like most anything else exposed to 60Hz AC power, it should hum, but that is all. Anything else is, well, Bad. However, the district manager who decided that it needed to go back disagreed with that assessment. His exact words in email: "Noise coming from an unloaded transformer alone isn't a worry without more data."

So, onward.

The dispatcher sufficiently covered his arse with phone and email records, and proceeded with the job, communicating his concerns with field crews, who were on the same page. When it was time to energize the transformer, the dispatcher had all crews leave the substation and get out of the immediate area before closing it in by remote control.

Select: Click. Close: Click. Confirm: Click.  Three Mouse Clicks.

All the dispatcher got to see and hear of this event was from the SCADA computer. Beeeeeeeeeeep. Transformer lockout alarm, open circuit breakers. Well, that didn't work.

Then the phone rang. The field crew, a couple hundred yards away, reported a large explosion and lots of smoke. After being reassured that equipment was de-energized, they returned to the substation yard to find the side violently blown out of the now-smoking transformer and BIG environmental mess to clean up. A transformer under load is a very different beast than one just heated up from one side.

What should have been an immediately-scheduled replacement job for $2 million that would have been done months ago, was instead delayed months for all the testing. Obviously, it will have to proceed now anyway, but it will have to wait until the cleanup is complete to EPA requirements. The attempt at $aving$ has resulted in way larger lo$$es.

Oops. Should've listened to the dispatchers and field crews, boss.

If you said make your feelings known, follow orders if forced, yet do everything necessary to document who owns responsibility and make absolutely certain your field crews are out of harms way, you made the same call that the on-duty dispatcher did that day. This was not a bad call.

If you canceled the job and told the bosses to pound sand, as I like to say I would have done with the luxury of hindsight, you would have caught some serious crap about it only as long as it took them to find someone else to take over for you and blow it up, and you would have made the right call.

No doubt there are some interesting memos going around, that we'll never get to see. Oh well.

(Disclaimer: That picture above is just for fun, not a picture of the described event.)