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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.

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