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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happens to All of Us


Engine 54, Engine 51, Engine 53, respond to a smell of smoke in a home.....

Upon my solo arrival in Engine 51, 54's crew was already in the house with the TIC trying to find the source of the burned plastic odor.  The air was clear, no visible smoke, but the smell was unmistakable.  I was directed to bring my TIC in as well, to help investigate inside, as nothing at all was visible from the outside.

We weren't making any progress by the time 53 arrived, and they were detailed with going around the perimeter outside with their TIC.

Furnace?  No problems.  Attic?  Nothing.  Electrical?  Nada.  Bad ballast in a fluorescent fixture?  Nope.  We kept coming back to the living room where the odor was strongest.

The fun part of this call was that the homeowner was a firefighter for the Very Large City Fire Department north of here across the county line.  He had tried to find the source for himself without success for quite a while, and eventually hit the point where he had to swallow his pride and call us in, because having your home burn down after you self-patrolled it for 30 minutes without successfully finding the source is much more embarrassing than having to call in the local firefighters.

Finally, it was Trev's voice: "Got it!".  He was by the wood stove, which the guy used to heat his home.  We had searched around it, behind it, checked the walls around it from the front and behind in other rooms, and had thoroughly inspected the chimney's path through to the roof several times and found nothing other than the normal and safe heat signature expected, with nothing unusual found to explain the odor.  Until Trev took a fourth long look, and was the first of us to look under it.

There, on the brick base near the fireplace, were three toy cars melted nearly into blobs, that Trev had scooped out from the 2" gap under the wood stove.

There you go.  Darn kids!

Don't worry homeowner firefighter from the VLCFD, it happens to all of us.  We won't tell.  At least we're not naming names.  And to be fair, it took us forever to find it, too.


Our prayers and thoughts go out to those affected by Hurricane Sandy and the brave souls working to keep everyone safe from harm and get the power back on.  Read of some freakishly amazing feats of courage and heroism by many out there.  Well done, and please make sure you get back home to your families in one piece.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Another Sendoff

The power dispatching world is a small one, a very tight community.  I've bounced around a little, as have many of us, and I now know folks in dispatch and operations management all over the country that I have worked alongside literally or figuratively.

The best power companies have an internal family structure very much like the fire department, very familial.  You work with the same two or three guys on a shift for years, it gets that way.  And you bitch about guys on the other shifts who don't clean up or put things in the wrong place.  Sometimes we can get pretty owly with each other about the dumbest things, but none of us would bat an eye at loaning a car to each other or families sharing a cabin for the weekend.  Sound familiar?

For that reason, when something bad happens to a member of the extended family nearly anywhere in the country, just like in the online fire community, it tends to impact someone you know within a degree or two.

Last week the Bonneville Power Administration lost a lineman out on the west coast, near Spokane I think.  He fell from a transmission tower during routine maintenance, and while he was wearing a full harness it is not clear what went wrong yet.

I know the feel in the dispatch center when you get that first frantic field call of an injury to personnel.  Of hearing voices on the radio you're familiar with remaining calm but with that edge that tells you its bad.  Just like the fire service.

Word started to filter around, and I got an email from a colleague the same day.  The name sounded a little familiar, and I couldn't figure out why.  I went to Facebook to contact a former colleague and old friend who dispatches for BPA now, because standard response for all of us is to pass the hat for the family, to get the details we needed to help out.  And right there in his short list of friends on his profile was the fallen lineman.  Probably where I had seen the name before, I guess.

He had just celebrated his first anniversary earlier this month, and his wife is expecting a son.  These never get any easier over time, fire or utility LODDs, but it helps knowing that in this kind of organization (just like fire), his wife and son will be well cared for by the brethren.

My BPA friend emailed over some pictures from the procession today.  The colors of the trucks are different, but the emotion is the same.

Rest easy Matt, your brothers will take it from here.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Another Cat Call

So a little girl of nine years old found her kitty up a tree. Being resourceful and with her Mom's permission, she looked up the non-emergency number of her local fire department (not my agency) and asked if they could help.

Now, normally, the answer is of course no, but the LT who took the call just could not bring himself to deny her directly. And hey, they don't get to practice with the old Sqrt that often, so c'mon boys let's call it a drill. The crew of four climbed aboard the rarely-used 1975 American LaFrance with the 65' Telesqrt and headed out to save the day.

Upon arrival, the little girl was pretty calm but clearly concerned. Mom was right there, admirably guiding her daughter through learning how to properly handle emergencies on her own but otherwise staying out of the way. From the accounts I've heard, Mom was pretty terrific about the whole thing.

So, little girl, where's your kitty? Which tree?

She pointed up. Way up. Way, way, waaay up. The LT's face fell. There was no way the 65-footer had a chance to reach up to the crazy height that kitty had ascended to. Once again faced with not wanting to tell the little girl "no", he apologized because they did not have a bigger ladder truck in the fleet and suggested maybe the power company could help. It was a stretch of desperation, sure, but who wants to shut down an adorable little girl who thinks you're the best heroes ever?

Then, like magic, they got an actual call, promptly responding gallantly to a medical emergency, without being forced to slink away in depressed failure.

Ever the resourceful young lady, the lass followed the LT's advice, and we got the call. It routed in here to dispatch (this being the first I heard about it), and my initial reaction was not just no, but hell no. We can't set a precedent for doing non-utility work. This is the fireman in me talking, of course. Then the customer service rep asked if I wanted to speak to the caller. Prepared to do my usual logical explanation of why we couldn't help, she transferred the little girl to me.

Of course, I had no idea the caller was a little girl. And then she told me how the firemen had let her down.

Damn you! I am powerless against her abilities! Like the LT, I looked around for an out. Like magic, there was Gary, having just returned from his service duty tour and filling out his timesheet. Miss, can you hold a second?

I gave Gary a quick rundown of the situation. He kind of relished the idea of outdoing the fire department. No one was using the highline truck (the one we use to reach the really high transmission lines on the towers) and nothing was really going on, so he grabbed the keys and headed out. I attempted to call the fire station she had called but no answer (they were still on that call apparently), left a message.

The highline truck's bucket goes up to 100', and it was pretty much at its maximum extension when he reached the kitty, which thankfully didn't scamper up any higher when he moved in for the grab. Sensibly, he had Mom take the little girl inside while they worked in case kitty decided to take a crazy suicide leap, but kitty was fairly cooperative about getting into the cat carrier.

Gary said the look on the little girl's face will be a permanent highlight on his career, and that beating the fire department in the rescue business was just icing.

I got a call back later from the LT, who filled me in on all that I had missed before we got the call, and was very happy to hear that things worked out well. I arranged for Gary to get a little private attaboy in our next staff meeting, but we can't publicize it too wide or we'll start getting more of these, right?

Good job, Gary. Don't take it too hard, LT.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Friday, September 7, 2012

Would you let this man drive?

Just read the latest post at Notes from Mosquito Hill.

Nostalgia again

While I can't quite yet claim to having spent more than 50% of my lifetime as a firefighter, I am pretty darn close.

Replying to the post was not possible, the network here won't allow Disqus through to add a reply. So hopefully mack505 sees this post and knows that I am not ashamed to admit that it brought me silly goosebump chills. Bells and relay switches and halogens and actual mechanical operating devices.... yes! No, the recruit won't know it was a treat until much later, and even if it was explained now he won't be able to fully appreciate it.

Thanks for taking us along for the ride, 505.

Now then, back to business.

Tooling back to my edge of the world in Engine 51 from an errand across the district, I came upon a transit bus stopped in the road, with the driver in back opening the engine compartment. Apparently a minor uh-oh. The bus is blocking a lane of a busy street, and the driver has no eye at all on traffic, just waltzing out there and exposing his behind to oncoming bumpers.

Let's do him a favor and introduce him to how we turn BRTs into big traffic cones, shall we?

So the passengers are milling, and he tells me that the "check transmission" light came on with an audible warning (he said "beeping"), so he stopped right away. He's telling me he isn't sure what to do, as nothing is smoking or leaking on the ground.

Well, how about we start by checking the transmission fluid level, shall we?

I don't know how to do that, he says.

We have a retired transit bus on our fleet that serves as a mobile command post, so actually I have had some exposure to working on an actual bus. This isn't rocket science. Within a few moments the dipstick tube labeled "TRANSMISSION" has been located.

Wait, he says. I don't know if you're allowed to touch that.

I couldn't help the expression that showed. Are you freaking kidding me? What am I gonna do, make the engine fall out? He deflects the silliness and says he'll check with the bus garage to see if I am allowed to help.

It's not as if we're going to get the bus fixed here on the side of the road, it's just basic early troubleshooting. He asks me what it was I was about to do, and I explain it in simple terms, but the way he describes it to his garage tech by radio it is no surprise the tech declines the help. I hope the tech realizes that the driver is whack in the clue department and that there are not random firemen out there just itching to start pulling his coach engines apart for giggles.

The garage tech asks his driver where the bus is. He looks at me for a second and then says he is on whatever route he was on, on the main route, and if you go past McDonalds you'll find the bus a little ways up.

I should have expected things to keep getting goofy, but this was choice. You see, the McDonalds is about three miles back and in a different municipality. God forbid this guy ever have an emergency and have to describe his location.

Looking about 200' in front of the bus at the intersection with the traffic light, I tried to helpfully tell the driver that he was in fact south of the intersection of 45th and Harper, in the northbound lane.  He got back and the radio and somehow melded McDonalds in with the Harper part, making less sense than before.

That was enough, this guy was a real piece of work. I went back to the Engine and radioed for the City PD to send a unit over for traffic control if one was available.  I wasn't going to stay and play this silliness, but didn't feel like I could leave his passengers alone under his care.

So tell me..... how does a guy get his CDL and expect to make his living by driving when he cannot even locate the transmission dipstick let alone know what it is for, and doesn't know where he is with street signs in his face?

Maybe I am expecting too much, but shouldn't someone who is going to make their living on the road be able to hold a shop rag and dig around a little bit to troubleshoot, and know where he is in broad daylight with clear signage?

With our current levels of unemployment, there has to be better qualified persons out there. That was just scary to me.  Certainly this doesn't reflect on all bus drivers everywhere, but their overall group reputation sure did just take a hit.

Be safe out there.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Happy Birthday, Paul

An email came down from the power company's marbled halls that a new security firm was taking over the contract for the operations facility. It noted that nothing would change other than the uniforms worn by the guys who had been working here all along, that they had moved from one company to the other.

As an aside, I find it a little disheartening that our security is contracted out, for the same reason that I dislike our custodial work and other relatively low-paying jobs on contract. I know there are financial reasons for it, but the loss of entry-level jobs into the business makes it hard to grow local, loyal employees. These days most everyone comes in sideways from another career.

At my first power company gig, the operations center was named for a previous longtime CEO who was well-liked and who led the company through a difficult period into an era of lasting success and growth. Story goes that he used to stop by Dispatch pretty much every morning and chew the fat with the crusty dispatchers, hearing the unedited opinions of how things were.

Today you are hard pressed to get high company leaders into Dispatch even once a year, which is true for my current company. And forget getting them into a truck with a crew for a day.

But what was even better about this legendary CEO was his career path. He moved into upper management after stints as Chief Dispatcher and Superintendent of Operations. Before his dispatch career he was a meter reader, worked at one of the coal power plants, drove heavy equipment, worked in the warehouse. His first job at the utility? Custodian. For real. I saw the old company directory to prove it, a genuine success story, and a lifetime career with a company he knew intimately from top to bottom, a company he loved and who loved him back.

I know those days are over, so no use crying about it.

So (back on topic), I arrived at work and met Paul, one of those security guys, and asked him if he was going to look better in his new black duds that would replace these gawdawful green threads. Paul is in his late sixties and probably does not spend much time thinking about uniform fashion.

"I don't know, I'm not going to be wearing them."

(scratching record - full stop)

Say what?

Turns out Paul was informed about an hour before I saw him that he was in fact not going to be picked up by the new company. And why? He was told it was because he had a DUI back in the 90's on his record. A misdemeanor, for which he paid his debt to society, and a clean record ever since. Not good enough. He said they defined their disqualifying criteria as having been in jail.

Now what the hell is this? At my level of security, especially when I worked at the monster utility and had instant unfettered access to remote transmission and generation controls spanning several U.S. states, you'd think I would have to meet a higher standard. I could have single-handedly blacked out a huge chunk of the USA in about 30 seconds. And guess what?  I've been in jail, too.

Yes, when I was 18 and much dumber than I am now, I was stupid and got caught up with some friends in activities which are not germane to the blog. I was arrested, processed, spent several hours in a holding cell. I was never charged with anything, because I was on the fringe of the stupidity, but the arrest is still on my record and has come up at every power company and FD interview. Nonetheless I keep getting hired because I pass the checks and polygraphs (having not been charged with anything helps, of course).

So here we are. I am in middle management like a division chief at my current power company, with the same full access to everything. Yet Paul, who can't get to any of this stuff, apparently can't otherwise be trusted on the premises or in the fleet yards despite almost 20 years of watching the place for us without a blemish.

And you know what?  It was his birthday. He had arrived to find that the office ladies had brought him pie and ice cream. Had a little social thank you event and then went about his rounds. Two hours later he got the call that he was working his last shift.

And then I showed up and cluelessly asked him a silly-assed fashion question. As if his day wasn't just peaches already. Something doesn't add up here, and we are left to wonder if the new company didn't want to assume Paul's upcoming retirement costs or something equally cold. Sounds like the jail time thing was just an excuse.

Happy birthday, Paul.

Friday, August 10, 2012

When Trouble Finds You

The question of whether the blog should end or not isn't meaningful if it is going to be kept online for access to some of the old stuff some of you guys find of value. I never intended to delete the thing, but felt it was necessary to offer an explanation instead of just ceasing to write. But since it will stay up, I can't rule out occasionally feeling like writing something, and what better place than this?

One reason the readership has always been sort of low is that I blocked search engine access to avoid netting people who were searching for power dispatch terms like NERC and FERC, but to heck with that, I've not said anything I'm not willing to stand behind so why hide? I had always intended the audience to be fellow 911-types, but no need to keep the audience so narrow. I've disabled the search engine block.

So, I guess it will live on, now that I have explained my dearth of inspiration and no longer feel like an apology for long periods of quiet is necessary.

And of course, there's a tale to tell. Of course. Sometimes trouble finds you without you looking for it.

While driving home with my family after a weekend of camping, we were in the middle of nowhere but nearing home shortly after midnight when we drove past a family-owned commercial farm. It was a very humid and warm evening, with fog banks in the valleys. Up in one of the high windows of a barn/shop building, maybe three stories up, I was pretty sure I saw a thin curtain of steam or smoke coming out.

After the first ten or so years of my fire career, constantly being hyper-vigilant and constantly double-checking stuff that turned out to be nothing, I nearly kept going, but..... but I just gotta double check this one. Turned around and went back.

Something white is coming out, sure enough. And.... sure as hell, there is an unmistakable orange flickering visible within.

Game on.

Woke up the wife, put the phone in her hands, and told her to call the cavalry.

It took quite a while to wake the family across the street, and we're far enough out in the country that I wondered if they'd appear with two barrels pointed at me.

The guy came out, looked over my shoulder. By now, flames were easily visible from two upper windows. All he said at first was "Oh my God, my God!" in that all-too-familiar tone we've heard before. I snapped him out of it and asked if there was anything we could try to save. I suppose I could have just gone into the barn first but I'd never been in there before and hadn't a clue what was saveable or worth saving, if anything. The livestock, he said.

I always assumed the building in question was an operations thing, no clue there were critters in there. We went over and he started letting them all out. I'm not a farmer or ranch hand, and didn't have the slightest idea what gates to open or where we were going to send them, or what words to say to motivate the animals to get moving at 0-dark-thirty. But I kept track of his location while watching the glow outside get intense. I stepped out once, and it was really getting going good. This was a very old building, drying out for many decades. When worrisome-sized pieces began falling outside I told him time was up and we had to get out.

As we came out, there was a sharp BOOM from across the street. The heat or falling debris had already caused the 12kV primary tap on the power pole in front to fault, blowing the cutout. Oh, and the pole was on fire. Now I'm wearing two hats again.

I went and found Mrs. Grumpy and got the phone from her so I could call in an update, and told her to head on home before the family was hemmed in by fire engines and hose lines. Turns out she was still talking to 911 and handed me the phone.

I identified myself as a firefighter of the jurisdiction where the fire was, and advised of the new power line problem.

"OK, we've got two engines and tanker en route".

I literally chuckled. I remember hearing myself chuckle and thinking that it was amusing that I was amused.

"This is a working fire in a large commercial/industrial building with multiple exposures, I need you to upgrade this to a full structure 2nd alarm"

She didn't argue.

When Engine 56 arrived with just two aboard, I met the guys and gave my report. I didn't have my PPE with me, but there were just two of them and the Captain was about to have a very busy night. I proposed taking over as his engineer, and that's where I spent the next six hours, operating the pump of the first-arriving engine. The place burned to the ground (it was beyond saving from the get-go), but despite having no hydrants we saved all of the exposures and there were no livestock losses. Not bad.

Late in the game, after the fire marshal showed up, he was told that I had discovered the fire and we chatted. Now, it looks reallllllly bad when a fireman happens to find a major fire in its incipient stage in the middle of nowhere, but I joked with him how I was thankful my wife and kids were with me, that we had just left a friend's house prior while dropping off a camping buddy, and of course my cell phone will show my locations.

If I had been alone and this had been before the age of cell phones, I would have been screwed. And I wouldn't have had the good sense to call it in anonymously and run away. That's a shame, that there are enough dirtbag mutts doing nefarious things that being in the right place at the right time can look all wrong.

I did notice he made a point of "accidentally" meeting a reporter near enough to me later on that I could overhear their conversation, probably just to check to see if I would try to inject myself. There were several points where I could have helped with the answers. I turned my back. No thanks.

I managed to keep my name out of the press, thank goodness, with help from our PIOs after one place got my name. One media outlet mentioned the fire was found by an off-duty firefighter, but after that no further mention of how it was found or who found it was made by anyone. I don't think that even all of our own guys on the FD know it was me, and that's fine. The power company serviceman who showed up went the extra mile and put in an award recommendation for me (a non-union guy and his boss no less!), but I had to see my boss to bat that down for the same reasons, and my serviceman understood why. Let's be real here, I didn't actually do anything heroic. I woke people up, stood around in a burning building when I shouldn't really have, and ran a pump without a lid and gloves for hours. Not recommended. Now, the farmer who actually rescued livestock while I watched, he should get recognition.

It's what we do, not for the recognition, but because we're sort of nuts that way.

And we're not always thinking about how we're going to get a ride home afterwards. One of the BC's had to drive me home that morning, where my family was still sound asleep. Good.

And that's the latest tale of how trouble found me when I wasn't paying attention.

Stay safe out there.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Contemplating the End

Now that it's been three years, I am looking at what I am doing here and wondering if it is time to call it a day.

Not the Job or the other Job. The blog.

I was pretty unhappy with the absurdities of my previous power company, and needed an outlet to blow off the pressure. Since changing companies back in September, everything is better. Sure, there are annoying goofballs here that can annoy the hell out of anyone, but it is nothing like before. As such, the once abundant fount of rant material has mostly gone dry, and as it turns out this blog was mainly a rant vehicle all along.

After rants, the secondary source of material was memorable calls and experiences over the nearly 20 years in the fire service and 15 in the power company line of work that I have seen. That source, too, has dried up as the best tales have generally been told.

Unlike MotorCop and the Happy Medic, both major inspirations for me to start this blog when they appeared as rant vehicles, it doesn't appear that there is an obvious or useful path to take towards re-characterizing what this place is and will be from its humble ranting beginnings. I just feel like there isn't anything of value to offer.

There just doesn't seem to be any good stuff bubbling up and wanting to be put to words any more. As the lag between posts here increases, readership has logically dropped. We opened a Facebook page quite a while ago and so far there are less than 10 people in it. (Actually, that's kind of embarrassing.)

This is not a pity party, and I don't need the love, I get plenty of that already. This is merely an attempt to be objective about if this should continue and how many people would be put out if it ended. Objectively it looks like this might be it.

So, while this gets pondered over the next week or two and the blog faces a likely shutdown, please let me know if there are any loose ends I promised to get back to and forgot about, or any job/industry specific questions (mainly power company stuff) that you'd like addressed.

It's been fun. As one of my favorite authors often writes on his blog, thanks for reading. Really. Thanks.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Two nameplates with the same typo at the same substation are better than one, said the engraver, and the installer.


And hey, as long as we're posting pics, this one is due for Tuesday.... amazing to me that this is still alive after this long.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What's Different in This Picture?

Engine 51, Engine 53, Medic 97, off to a traffic accident...

It wasn't especially noteworthy. I arrived first by myself in E51 and established command. Two patients in a car that had wiped out and spun against an embankment. Lots of highly annoyed bystanders who couldn't wait to share their contact info with the PD, barely containing their anger about the car passing several others high speed on a blind corner before losing it, minor miracle no one was coming the other way.

Daughter just graduated from high school driving, mom in the passenger seat. Mom's new 1-month-old car, by the way. Wonder what, if anything, was said in the car just before the wipeout. So much for the new car. Airbags, fluid spills, bumper shards everywhere. Typical wreck.

E53 showed up with three guys. One of our BC's showed up off-duty and came up to help too. I put the BC on safety, and assigned E53 to assess and package the patients, and coordinated with PD on traffic and City road crew to help mitigate the spill. The medic showed up and my guys worked with them to get them both into the box for a trip to town to be looked over.

Seriously, nothing interesting to report here, a very typical wreck.

I wrote some notes based on what the E53 guys told me so I could do the report. Then, tonight, I sat to file the paperwork, and realized what was different in this picture.

Everyone there was on the payroll except me. Yet, as the lone straight-up volunteer present, I was the IC.

I offered it to the BC, but he said "Hell no, I'm always in charge and never get to play, you can keep it." Made no difference to me, so OK.

This is an aspect of my current agency that I really enjoy. Our training standards are aligned no matter how you are attached to the agency, so it made no difference who was in charge, but I think this is the first time I did it over an all-paid crew, as no other volunteers happened to show up for this one.

Cool. It's a good gig I've got here.

That's all, just a little interesting thing from the day. Carry on.

Stay safe brothers and sisters.

Friday, June 8, 2012


I ran into Steve at the local Gas-and-Go today. We had a long chat. I hadn't seen him in over a year.

Steve left our fire department a couple of years ago because he no longer had time to devote as a volunteer, and he was struggling to make ends meet. He needed every hour of his day to be available for work. It had been seven years since he had finally decided at the age of 37 to follow his dream to become a career firefighter, and although he poured himself into the job and every training opportunity, he never seemed to get high enough on any lists to get his career badge.

He wasn't one of those guys that just was never going to make it, he nearly always made the list where he tested, usually in the 20s or 30s at the bigger agencies, in the teens or better at the smaller ones. We all told him that he just needed to keep after it and eventually he'd get in.

When he left our agency, he hoped to get on at a smaller outfit with less activity demands so he could keep the dream alive, but today, he told me that he had finally just let it all go and let his EMT lapse as well.

He needed a shave, and he needed new shoes. He's a good-looking guy, but just not getting any breaks. He was trying to keep his eyes dry and voice steady as we talked about his family. Trouble at home with the wife, but they're keeping things together for the kids for better or worse as long as they can, trying to do the right thing. Upside down on his house equity, and just barely making ends meet with his contracting work.

I've been very fortunate to get a lot of breaks, and I wish I could share some of mine with Steve. He's just sad and far away right now. He needed a hug and I gave him one, and he was unable to stifle a single light sob for that.

Some of us are pretty heady guys, we've got our nice trucks and boats and enjoy a brew with the brothers on someone's back deck from time to time, looking sharp in our FD T-shirts and badass sunglasses. Living the dream.

There isn't much we can do for the Steves of the world to get them into the career gig, but it is worth respecting the commitment they have first to their families by not letting the FD totally consume their lives until they lose everything else. Steve saw the cliff approaching and withdrew from the race before he lost it all, and that is an amazingly honorable thing to do. You don't have to have a badge to be honorable.

Next time you're hanging around with the guys and living the dream, make sure you take a good look around and drink it in. Appreciate what you have, because it is a gift that has no substitute and should not be taken for granted.

God bless, Steve. I'll be praying for you and your family. You are missed.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Genius Fail

So, we've got a guy who is not paying his electric bill. It is months and about a grand behind. It finally comes to the point that we cut him off, and a serviceman goes and boots the meter, mission accomplished.

Not so fast.

Because of previous drama at this address, a meter tech went by there to check things out a few days later. Found the lock ring and boot on the ground, meter back in and spinning. This is called a "self-restore" and a "tamper", which is an automatic $400 fine. Plus, we cut you off "more permanently".

So the next day, one of our nicest and most laid back servicemen, Paul, arrives in Truck 575 to cut this guy off from the pole's service drop. No one is home, but he chats with an elderly neighbor lady who sees him and comes out to visit. We're the Good Guys, after all. Service dropped, he's done and on his way, mission accomplished.

Not so fast.

Our customer service department gets a call, the recording of which I have not yet had a chance to hear, but the notes tell the story. Apparently the homeowner called in and said he was out of town but had heard from his family that the power was cut. That is to say, 217 members of his family. Yes, that is the precise number of people he claimed were at his home during a family reunion gathering, which was ruined by the power being cut off.

Aside #1: I had about 40-50 people at my house for a Memorial Day gathering. I actually did try to count once but couldn't do it. And I was actually present. How he got 217 while not physically present is an amazing feat.

Aside #2: If this family reunion drew 217 people to his home, then why precisely was he himself as host out of town during such an important event?

Aside #3: His house is 1080 sq ft. If all 217 were inside, they each individually had about 5 sq ft of personal space and were very quiet while Paul was there.

Aside #4: And where did those 217 people park their cars, anyway?

But wait, it gets better.

Dirtbag went on to claim that his grandson had approached Paul to ask "what was going on" when Paul went off and "smacked him with a wrench". He says the grandson is in the hospital and will incur medical expenses, and that a police report has already been filed with "80 witnesses".

Oddly, the brothers in blue did not come to arrest Paul on an assault charge, or even try to interview him, or even call any of us at all for any reason. Curious.

The first Paul heard about it is when I asked him if he carried a wrench on his service truck. A little crescent wrench, he said, that rarely gets used, why? Oh the fun we had telling him all about his violent ways that he kept hidden from us. He must have been plenty mad at the dirtbag's family, because he has no memory of the event at all and obviously blocked everything out except the nice chat with a little old lady in front of a small empty house.

Um, dirtbag, we're the power company, not plumbers. Our one-man service crews don't carry weapons-grade wrenches.... anywhere. Now if you piss one of our guys off you might get brained with a hotstick or something.

A wrench? 217 family members? While you're not home? That all stayed hidden? 80 witnesses? And no arrests?

I've stopped laughing, because it is absurd to the point of tragic. Good luck dirtbag. We'll probably bill you for any legal expenses you incur on us, on top of the arrears and tamper fine. Genius, you FAIL.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

When Did That Happen?

Engine 51, Engine 54, Medic 97, motor vehicle versus bicycle.....

The address is a fast road. This could be messy.

As I arrive in the engine, I see a pickup truck in the middle of the road and a small gaggle of bicyclists around one of their own who is sitting on the shoulder behind the guardrail. No blood smeared on the pavement. Whew.

He has no obvious visual injuries, but is clearly in some pain. Turns out he was not paying attention and rode at high speed downhill into a curve and the path of the truck. The truck screeched to a halt, and the rider decided that it would be better to sail over the guardrail rather than leave his bodily impression on the truck's grille.

He surfed the guardrail long enough to take a post top to the ribs. He's an slightly older guy, salt and pepper hair, in good shape, tells me he's a doctor. He seems to be an agreeable sort and I tell him that, like us firemen, docs and nurses are our best or worst patients. He laughs, winces, and says he'll go with whatever I want to do.

This is a no-brainer full c-spine job. Another friend tells me he's a doctor, too. Of what I never found out, but they were good guys. I asked the doc friend to take c-spine and went on with the full physical assessment without finding anything else of note. His helmet had a good scuff in it, though, another skull saved. E54 arrived and one of their guys wrote down all the info and we packaged him up without delay.

I wished him good luck as we loaded him into M97 and he thanked us for the help.

Other than the poor judgement on the downhill piloting of his bike, he is clearly taking care of himself and looks like he could keep up with most of the younger guys. The paperwork is mine and we all clear the scene.


Filling out the report that E54's backwards rider gave me, I see the DOB.

He was two years younger than me.

Damn. I'm getting kind of old. When did that happen??


Hope to see you on Facebook.....

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Or like not.

Either way, this blog has succumbed to the Facebook monster and has been assimilated.

It isn't clear to me yet if this will be useful or not, but we'll see what happens.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Keep Your Hat On

A little shout-out to those arriving from Radio Reference: The post you're looking for is from December 2009, and can be found here.


I was out in my staff pickup doing some mundane power company errands when my FD was dispatched into the local small town to assist them with a reported traffic accident.  It was fairly close by, but not in my fire jurisdiction, and I was not dressed for the part in any case.

I lug along the fire radio and power company radio in the car with me most places, as you never know what you're going to find or get asked to go do.  Can't actually wear all that crap though.  Gee whiz, if I tried to carry everything.... my Minitor, Mayberry's Minitor, my fire radio, my power company radio, my cell phone.... I'd walk in circles and develop a limp worthy of disability.  But I digress.....

But, since I had the fire radio in the truck, I turned it on anyway just to be nosy.  The small town FD arrived and was unable to locate.  Boring.  I turned the radio back off.  Attention fully back on my power company business....

Several minutes ticked by.

"Dispatch to 570."  That's Bruce.


"Bruce, sent a call to your screen on the Valley Road, request from fire dispatch."

Hmmmm, could it be?  The Valley Road comes out into town and changes its street name, but some of the locals call it the Valley Road through town to the county line.  The original traffic accident call I heard was on the town portion of the "Valley Road".  I called my dispatcher on the phone.

This is Grumpy, I'm near Valley.  What's Bruce got?

Got a reported car versus pole at 4567 Valley Road.

Clicked together like new Lego blocks.  I had turned off the fire radio a tad early.  The original UTL had evolved into finding the correct location, in my "home" fire district..

Where's Bruce coming from?  A long way off, as it turned out, perhaps 30 minutes.

I'm about two minutes away, I'll head over and see what we've got.

I arrived to find a long backup of cars, some of them trying to turn around.  Finally getting to the good part, there's our Engine 55 and the small town Engine.  There's a couple of spans of wire on the ground, and a broken pole.

Keep your hat on.

It's so easy to stumble into trying to do both jobs, but that is just begging for confusion.  The white staff hardhat came out, the turnouts stayed in the truck.

I found the IC, E55's captain.  Sweet! he laughed, our dual subject matter expert!

He asked me if I'd carry the fire radio so he could reach me easier as we worked the scene, and I agreed to do it to keep track of their actions, but avoided actually talking on it.  I nearly tripped up and used it a couple of times, but stayed clean.

This scenario happens once in a while, much more often since I got my new gig.  It's old news for me, but this one seemed like a typical keep just one hat on kind of day, and it worked perfectly.  I guess my message to you guys, if ever you find yourself in a place where you potentially have more than one role, is that things go so much better when you stick to one function and don't have two bosses with widely varied goals and needs.  Nonetheless, it is always fun meeting my guys from one agency when working the other.

Stay safe out there.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Lightbulb Moments

The tow truck guy rolled the car back upright, and it fell with a crunch. The left rear tire was still about 18" off the ground. This car was crushed in a funky way, for the tire to be off the ground like that. Yet, the 18 year old kid who rolled it end-over-end on prom night was merely rattled. Signed a refusal against our advice and wasn't transported.

We were sweeping crap off the road when a power company truck appeared out of the darkness. One of my guys, but I didn't know who. Wrong hat at that moment. The pole that had been clipped was OK, the primary still firmly attached, but technically a journeyman needs to eyeball it for our company to call it good.

I went to meet my serviceman, and saw that it was Gary, the new guy who was promoted from the line department to fill Howie's position.

"Hey Gary, who are you with tonight?" Gary is still in his training window and assigned to another guy for a couple more weeks before going solo.

A slight pause. And then, "It's just me, we're busy tonight and no one else was available."

"Let you out all alone huh? Well, cool. The pole has a nick but is fine, I haven't looked at the primary real close but it seems OK. Let me know if you see something I missed."

Gary shined his light at the crossarm, and all was well.

"It's not as if you're new at this anyway, right? We all know you don't need the training month except for how to deal with customers one-on-one when they get shifty." Just giving him friendly guff.

Gary looked at me for a couple of beats. "You look really familiar."

My lightbulb moment. Gary didn't know I was a fireman in my other life, and has only ever seen me driving a desk or with a white staff hardhat at job sites. Now it's night, in a downpour, on some back country road, flashing red and blue lights, I am dressed in turnouts and am totally out of context.

"Sorry Gary, the context is wrong.  I'm Grumpy,....your new boss."

Gary's lightbulb moment. Your boss is also a fireman.  I introduced him to the other guys on my crew.

Too bad I can't play that trick more often. And it could have had so much more fun with it if I had only known of the possibilities beforehand.  Next time.....

Thursday, April 19, 2012


My interactions with Mayberry seem to have an unbalanced number of coincidences. One of their folks, last time we were together, said he couldn't decide if me running automatic aid into their area was good or bad luck yet. There doesn't seem to be any drama when any of our other guys go over there, though. It's just me who is possessed, apparently.

I was working on some of their pagers for them as a favor, and headed out in Engine 51 to drop off the sorted/repaired equipment. I was just pulling in to their HQ station, noticing that two bay doors were up as they were doing their dailies, when their tones dropped for an automatic fire alarm within the auto-aid zone Engine 51 is assigned to.

For an agency that runs less than 150 calls a year.... you've heard me say stuff like this before.... I had not even had a chance to park. I hit the lights, pulled a U right there in front, and responded.

Dispatch to arrival was two minutes. Not bad. When Mayberry's engine arrived, I gave them the lowdown on the accidental activation. No fire. Their officer then asked, how in the world did I get there so fast? As it turned out, no one had noticed me turn around at their station.

Well, if you'll come over here and look at the engine, you'll see where the paint peeled off from me driving over 175 MPH.

Just kidding. I told him the actual story, though it probably wasn't all that much more plausible.

I like running with those guys. We're always genuinely happy to see each other. Not everyone plays well together, so a little neighbor agency good news is worth seeing once in a while, right?

Stay safe and hug your family often.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What Are You Looking At?

Bruce was out on routine duty in Truck 570, cruising from one keeping-the-lights-on chore to the next, when he saw something strange on the top of a streetlight pole. Seeing as how we've supplied him with a company bucket truck, he decided to take a closer look. This is what he found.

Now we do get the odd request once in a while from the FBI, asking permission to put something on our poles, but their stuff is very subtle, usually the camera is so small it looks like the photocell. This camera was not in that league, rather it seemed to have a flaming coming-out party, screaming "look at me!".

Just to be safe and not step on any federal toes, Bruce left it there after taking some pictures and letting me know about it. I kicked it up the chain. A week or so later the work order appeared: We don't know whose this is or why it is there, take it down. I saved the job for Bruce, and he brought it in at the end of his shift. It was even bigger in person.

So, he says, while he was removing it, the guy whose house it was aimed at came out and crossed his arms, watching with disapproval. That could have meant a lot of different things. I looked up his house and found it listed to someone with an very eastern Europe-sounding name. Interestinger.

But the truth was boring. The guy came in a few days later and asked for his camera back. We figured we'd never know where the signal was being transmitted to know who or why someone was watching this place, but this was pretty cut and dried. Putting up your own security camera doesn't carry the same drama as hidden surveillance. Except for the part where you're stealing a little electricity.

We let him go with a "don't do that again", and that was that.

Bruce revived the drama, though.... what if he actually was being watched and now he's taking apart the camera to figure out who was watching him? Cue the cliffhanger music.....

Monday, April 9, 2012

I Need a Bigger Hammer

So I am at home dawdling around when my Mayberry Minitor goes off. Diabetic. I skipped on over to Station 51 and picked up the engine to go lend a hand as it was relatively close to 51's. It was an uneventful routine diabetic call. Shortly after the Medic finally arrived from way over yonder in Shiloh, Mayberry banged out another run, a low-priority trauma.

Now, Mayberry only does 120 or so calls a year, so two in the same day is quite uncommon. Two on top of each other is fairly unheard of. Shiloh Medic 11 released us fire guys to the new call as the incident was stable. Medic 12 was assigned. Before we could get out the driveway, there was yet another EMS run elsewhere in Hazzard County, and Medic 12 was diverted. Medic 13 and 14 are all that's left, and both are staffed by callbacks and volunteers. And it is the middle of a weekday when personnel resources are low. Medic 11 directed Hazzard 911 to get us Medic 98 from our side of the line if they heard nothing from the remaining Shiloh ambulances in five minutes.

Well sure enough, five minutes went by. We arrived at the new call and found that our low priority fall was actually an oh-crap trauma call. Hey guys, do we have an ambulance yet?

Then we heard tones on our side drop for Medic 97, dispatching them Code 1 to "Move up for coverage into Hazzard County".

WTF? 97 is farther away than 98, and what's with this generic "move up" thing?

Our dispatcher then elaborated for Medic 97, saying that they got a call from the local private BLS ambulance service. Seems that instead of going 911 center to 911 center, Hazzard 911 called the non-emergent transport service in our county for a Code 3 call. They in turn called the 911 center, and the result was the non-committal and somewhat vague move-up request. A lot was lost in translation, you might say.

Radio traffic cleared the confusion fairly quickly after that and Medic 98 started our way as the closest unit, Code 3.

All said and done, it was 55 minutes from initial Hazzard County dispatch until Medic 98 from our side arrived, though it was only a 15-mile country drive.

ARRRRRRRGH. Why is it so damned hard? I am positive that if I sat in with the Hazzard dispatchers I might understand what is going wrong. But to fix it? This is more than procedural. It is cultural, and I don't have a big enough hammer to swing to change that.

Grit teeth. Keep calm. Carry on.

Monday, March 26, 2012


Depressed hydrant is depressed that you forgot about him.

Friday, February 24, 2012


Can't rule out making some haters from this, but I haven't ranted for a while.... this blog used to be all about ranting and I just haven't had much to rant about since getting into my terrific new job. Summarily, the posts have thinned out to the remaining non-rant topics, and the readership has subsequently dropped. So... rant time!

UnionThink is the warped, disconnected from logical reality way of thinking that doesn't come naturally from the workforce. It pretty much only appears from union members, due to the evolution of unions from an umbrella of protection to a confederation of greed. I understand the need for protection. I've been a dues-paying member myself. If only protection remained the mission. In fact, I've never heard of a union having a mission statement to occasionally verify their bearings and purpose from. Any you know that have one? What is it?

Don't get me wrong, not all dues-paying union members are like this. I am hopeful that most aren't. But nearly all people who do think this way are in a union, and that is where they picked it up. The same way my oldest daughter, who is stunningly beautiful and freak-out intelligent, recently went totally off the rails after a couple of years of bad friend influences despite our efforts. Yes, prevention may not be possible.

Here is the microcosm seed for the rant. The working agreement between my outfit and the IBEW local states that overtime must be shared equally, but does not get into any specifics of how we make that happen. It is quite ambiguous in its definition.

The way we've been managing overtime for years is to keep track of how many OT hours you have accumulated on the year, and release a callout list every week with the lowest OT hours at the top and highest at the bottom. When you have a callout, you start at the lowest hours guy and work your way down until you get someone.

The problem is, some guys frequently don't want OT, or they like to "cherry pick" their OT by asking what the call is. These guys end up at the top of the list because their acceptances are low. Thus, we end up wasting our time on every callout by going through the people who don't answer or say no, and wasting our time describing the incident to someone who only wants the "good" ones, before finally getting someone to take the call down somewhere past the 5th or 6th person.

Since the rules are ambiguous, we are proposing a change. We are being nice and proposing it to them even though the agreement definition does not require us to, and there is no doubt it would survive arbitration. The change is a rolling callout list, and requiring a simple yes or no response without discussion.

Now, I take my callout list and start at the top. If I get the 3rd guy to take it, that is where I will start my calls on the next incident, on the 4th. This spreads the number of callouts to each employee perfectly evenly, and it is up to the employee to take it or not. This saves us time, as we get someone on the road earlier without the guaranteed initial nuisance calls. People with their power out will appreciate that.

This change will also vastly improve some callout acceptance percentages for my guys. For example, I've got one guy who hangs in the middle of the pack who has been working a great deal of OT and actually worked the most OT last week by a wide margin, but relative to how many calls were made to him, his acceptance rate was below 30%, partially because he was worn out and had to say no here and there. Another guy farther down the list who has accumulated his OT by being held over instead of called out has only been called three times, worked two of them, and has not willfully contributed much on callouts historically. Yet, his acceptance rate is 67%. Where's the justice? My hard worker is getting dinged on his performance even though he is by far the better of these two.

Under the rolling list, my hard worker example will get called fewer times and not have to refuse so many, forcing his acceptance rate up without any change in effort on his part. The no-OT people will get called vastly fewer times, and the cherry pickers will be forced to stop cherry picking because (a) they won't be told what the job is first, and (b) the calls will be fewer and far between and they better say yes now and then to get the OT.

So we take this to the guys, and they don't like it. They reason that if you don't have as much OT as other guys, it will be harder or impossible to catch up. Also, with the calls for those at the top farther apart, there will be less chances of them getting calls in the time window that kicks in their premium pay rule.

As a side note to the change, we are also invoking a callout exemption for certain predefined emergency events, where the closest serviceman will be called without regard to the callout list at all. But, the emergency event has to be one we've pre-defined, to avoid claims of gaming the system for anyone. Emergencies are pole damage, wire down, arcing/fire involving equipment, structure fires, and as requested by 911.

They perceive this whole thing as what we are taking away from them, as if it was an evil scheme because managers hate union employees. Where in the rules does it say we are responsible to make sure everyone works the same amount of OT despite the inconsistent OT behavior across the ranks?  The rules talk about equal OT opportunities, not guaranteed OT equity.

Insert reality here. Let's try to remember what we do, why we exist, and who we work for.

We keep the lights on.

We exist to keep the lights on.

We work for the people whose lights we keep on.

The new callout procedure will help us get personnel on the road earlier, especially in emergencies, and will save us money by eliminating the rules nuance that some of the guys play to get into premium time situations. Premium time will still happen, but it will be nearly impossible to "arrange" it any more. We are making OT available to everyone as fairly as possible, and it is up to you, the employee, to take it or leave it. It is not up to us to help you catch up if you get behind.

Faster response, save money. Wow, imagine that. As managers, that's in line with what we are charged with. We know our mission.

Some of my union people have forgotten what we do and why we're here, and only concern themselves with what they feel entitled to, especially if a change reduces that "entitlement".

That is why unions are broken. And it's too bad, because they once had a noble and necessary purpose. Sadly, UnionThink has detached from reality.

The new callout procedure will probably go into effect anyway, because it is the right thing to do for the ratepayers. Because in reality, it is the ratepayer that pays us money and actually has an entitlement to what they pay us to do. That's reality.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fast Start to the New Arrangement

Station 51 by my place is located at the fringes of our area in a southern corner of the district, and rather close to the border with Mayberry VFD of Hazzard County. I've shared some Mayberry/Hazzard tales before, their tone is generally that of an organization filled with well-intentioned but underfunded and under-appreciated volunteers doing the best they can with what little they have. Sometimes this causes problems when they play in our system and some of their newer (or older) members feel in over their heads in the midst of our "city" procedures shared countywide on our side. Most of the inter-agency issues we experience that cause gray hairs is actually a result of communications issues between our respective dispatch centers, beyond our control. Overall, it is a good relationship.

So it came as no surprise that after long last, an auto-aid arrangement was recently signed, sealed and delivered so that Station 51 is automatically dispatched to all incidents in a certain predefined slice of Mayberry territory, and has a standing invitation to make an appearance at any major incident in their full area. This affects me on our side more than anyone, as I am the only active guy near Station 51, so I made an appointment with the blessings of our leadership to go visit their Chief and discuss practical things under the arrangement. It was a good, productive meeting and I left with one of their pagers to keep at my house.

Afterwards I went to grab a bite at the local Gas-N-Go before heading home. I had to pass their HQ again on the way back. Lo and behold, Mayberry Rescue 13 pulls out up ahead of me and is off to the races. Missed that one by just a few minutes or I would have been invited to take a seat aboard. They proceeded to head into the area predefined for our auto-aid, so I followed along to see what came of it.

After a few miles, the Rescue pulled over to the side of the road, and the lone EMT aboard came back to me. The message from dispatch gave him a bad cross street reference that didn't pan out, and he did not know where this obscure road was.

Well, it just so happened...... that since Mayberry does not have useful maps of their area, I had created my own to cover the portion we would probably be taking rigs from 51 to. And it was with me in the truck. Found the street soon enough, and the Mayberry guy asked to follow me to the call.

So that is exactly what we did, Rescue 13, Code 2, following me in my truck.

Sometimes timing is everything. I rarely visit Mayberry HQ. I never had that special map in the truck with me before that day. I never in years have happened to see one of their rigs pull out in front of me. Two days prior our auto-aid agreement had not been in effect. But it all came together that day like a lawn dart landing on a quarter.

That worked out pretty well, and I now have a few more banked "thank-you" points with them. A good way to start the new arrangement.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Sendoff

We lost three employees during my tenure at my previous rather heartless and cold power company gig, and other than passing a card around, not much else was done except feel bad..... mainly because no one was really doing anything else.

At the new power company gig, it clearly is a family. It's like the fire department. I love my new job.

Howie's memorial service was billed as a celebration of his life. A large convention hall was reserved at one of the new hotels on the edge of town. A couple of bucket trucks were set up to form an arch and half-staff flag between the buckets that everyone drove under to arrive. And as a special touch, Truck 579 was detailed and shined up, and parked inside the building.

A catered dinner was served, and mourner/celebrants walked a long row of tables filled with pictures of Howie throughout his active life both in and out of the company, and stacked with memorabilia and artifacts of his power company career. All his current gear at the time of his passing was on a table, and elsewhere were his past helmets, certificates, mementos, awards. It was beautiful.

There were probably about 750 people in attendance. It took ninety minutes to get people to finish looking over the displays of Howie's life and quiet down for the slide show. My phone camera is ancient so the resolution isn't that great.

I found Howie's best friend and ran an idea by him, something we've all seen at firefighter memorials. It made him a little emotional, and he then ran it by Howie's widow to see if she would be OK with it. She was.

After the slide show was a group toast and a moment of silence. Then, from Truck 579's radio, came a voice.

"Dispatch to 579."  The room had been quiet already, but now you could hear a pin drop.

"Dispatch to 579."


"Dispatch calling Truck 579."


"Truck 579 is 10-7."

It's hard to describe how the room felt, but it was powerful. Bringing a firefighting memorial tradition into there was the right thing to do, and I've been hearing people express appreciation for it for over a week, again and again. I keep reminding them that it wasn't "me" that did it and I don't want credit, but that it worked because of the kind of guy Howie was. It was not easy for the dispatcher who called it out, either, and he also deserves credit for making it work when he couldn't be at the service and couldn't see its effect. It worked because when guys retire from here, it is a big deal to go 10-7 for the last time, but as Howie went out sick and never returned to duty, he didn't get his 10-7 moment.

We saw to it that it happened anyway.

This is a good company, and I am lucky to be in this family.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Truck 579 10-7

Previously: Bad News

We lost Howie last week.

Last time I wrote about him, I had not actually met him, but over the holiday he came in to visit the dispatchers and service crews. Although he was in a wheelchair, he was all smiles, wearing a Santa hat and delivering cookies. This is in line with everything I had ever heard about him.

Folks are pretty low here, but the lights must stay on, and so the show goes on.

Although the Fleet division will not go along with re-numbering Truck 579, we're retiring the call sign in Dispatch anyway. Whoever we promote to inherit Howie's old ride will be heard on the radio as Truck 584, because 579 is 10-7 and retired.

Rest in peace brother Howie. As I can see from those around me, you will be missed, and we'll take care of keeping the lights on from here.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Smart Grid, Part 1 - First Tell Me About LMP

I already know this won't be brief. No matter how much I say I'll try to keep it short, I can't. I talk too much and over-explain everything. Having accepted that, I sleep OK at night at peace with who I am.

With that out of the way....

Why do we need a "smart grid"?

If you've been following me for a while and have read the tutorials, you know the basic truth that AC power is generated exactly as it is consumed, with no practical storage applications. As demand goes up, frequency drops, and power plants increase output to match demand, and vice-versa. It is fluctuating every second. Thankfully, the smoothed out impacts of millions and millions of people turning lights and toasters and Blu Ray players on and off don't amount to much instantaneous fluctuation relative to the size of the interconnected grid. If you were trying to run a power grid of only five houses with a plant just barely big enough to do it, and they all happened to turn on a bunch of stuff at once, everyone would see a big dip and maybe low voltage damage - assuming it didn't trip the generator outright.

Following demand is not an efficient game. During high demand periods, power plants with expensive fuel sources have to run to keep supply up, raising the aggregate cost of power. During low periods, only the cheapest units run, lowering the aggregate cost, but when coal plants run below efficiency (usually under 80% or so), they create more pollution relative to power produced. Running thermal plants up and down every day for years wears them out, as the boilers and systems fatigue and break down from being heated and cooled over and over and over again. Overall energy costs go up not just from fuel costs, but repair and maintenance costs.

Despite real-time hourly changes in energy prices based on what power plants are running at that time of day, almost everyone at the consumer level pays a flat per-kilowatt hour charge for electricity. This is tricky for power companies, as they need to make their rate case with magic math that figures out how much revenue will be coming in based on which hours their systems are used and what energy costs actually are, with hopes that they get enough money to run the thing, but not so much that the consumers scream foul. It is frankly very easy to screw this up, and a couple of disastrous power market days with real-time energy prices increased by 1000% or more can take years for a company to recover from with their rate case locked-in usage fees.

The first step towards efficiency is to get all power companies in a large area to cooperatively control their power plants instead of playing the hourly market game. The Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO), a quasi-governmental reliability agency with authority over a huge footprint of power companies in the midwest, was the first to do this on a really large scale. Their coordinated control concept was based on a model called Locational Marginal Pricing (LMP).

Don't let these acronyms scare you, I'll try to keep it simple.

Let's say you have a self-contained power system with four power plants and no ties to the outside world. Your transmission lines are overbuilt and there are no restrictions on power flows anywhere in your system. Your customers pay for their electricity based on hourly usage instead of a flat round-the-clock average cost. Your power plants use different fuels and therefore have different costs. You run the cheapest unit until it reaches capacity, and then start the next cheapest unit. When #2 peaks, you start the third unit, etc. Figuring out your hourly energy costs are easy, it's basic math based on how much was produced from each plant for any particular hour, and everyone in your system is charged the same thing for any particular hour.

In this model, location means nothing. Pricing is flat across all areas by the hour. The wrinkle that screws everything up is constraints on the electric transmission system.

Back to the same model. Self-contained system with four plants, one in each quadrant. But this time, the transmission lines between the quadrants do not have unlimited capacity. As long as no lines are at their limits, the flat hourly pricing works fine. Let's say the cheapest unit is in quadrant 1. Now, as long as demand is low, that cheap unit can supply everyone fine, but as the day picks up, demand in quadrant 2 rises to the point that if the cheap unit in quadrant 1 keeps going up to cover, the power line between them will overload. Since the cheap plant cannot supply the demand in quadrant 2, the next-cheapest plant somewhere else will have to come online to make up the shortage.

At this point, you have locational marginal pricing, based on transmission (transportation) constraints. Back in quadrant 1, energy stays cheap, and only the people in quadrant 2 who did not have the foresight to increase their transmission line's capacity have to pay the averaged costs of what they could get from the cheap plant and the remainder they had to get from somewhere else. It's no different than living next to a bakery and getting cheap donuts, but over the hills where they have a small bakery that can't keep up and they can't ship enough donuts in from elsewhere on the only dirt road into town, the value of a donut logically goes up.

Now, the MISO did exactly this, back in about 2003 or so, but on a GRAND scale. Covering all or parts of 11 U.S. States and the Canadian Province of Manitoba, with 35 power companies owning transmission assets and another 98 companies owning generation and/or serving load, they coordinate over 130,000 megawatts of energy generation from hundreds of power plants. In real time, pulsing power plants to move up and down to live within the cheapest-power-possible-to-where-you-are LMP model every few seconds.

How do they set prices? The generation owners bid the units into the MISO system, with costs based on output. They even have allowances for efficiency bandwidths, so you can say your power plant costs 'x' from 200-400MW, 'y' from 401-475Mw, 'z' 476-510MW, etc. The MISO super AGC computer sees real-time demand across their entire footprint, determines when generation needs to increase, and finds the next cheapest unit anywhere in their entire area to go up. Except that the MISO super AGC computer also knows what the real-time flows on all of the transmission lines are, and knows how moving any generator up or down will impact every transmission line. So it doesn't just grab the next cheap unit in the stack, it grabs the next cheap unit that can increase without overloading any power lines anywhere else.

This creates hundreds of pricing bubbles in the MISO footprint based on LMP restrictions. The MISO super AGC computer measures consumption at thousands of points on the system and knows which power company is the consumer at every given point. Knowing how much energy you used at any given consumption point every hour, and knowing the energy cost in that bubble for that hour, it is no great leap to figure out what to charge you for the energy based on your usage at all of your consumption points. So, in effect, the MISO "buys" the energy using cheapest-possible source from the bidding process and influenced by the LMP model, and then sells the energy back to the members with pricing based on their usage and location, keeping a cut to operate their massive bureaucracy.

This effectively killed the hourly power market in MISO, as it completely ended the hourly guessing game. Your units ran if you priced them low enough to get picked up and had transmission availability out of your system, and you know you always got the cheapest energy possible that was offered. If your costs seem too high, build more power lines into your system or help your neighbors build lines that will help you get more cheap stuff. The day of the energy trader making hourly deals like working Wall Street ended in MISO.

It was gigantic gain in efficiency, as you no longer run your own units up and down to meet only your local demand. Cheap units run pretty much full power all day, and the load increases and decreases at scales large enough that it is unlikely that the stack will land on any one unit and run it up and down for hours. Increased demand flies through the stack quickly enough that your unit running at minimum waiting get picked up gets the signal to go to full and then stays there for hours.

MISO is not the only one playing the LMP game in the U.S., but they are the largest and did it best first (though not without some noteworthy hiccups worth another post another day). And while efficiency was vastly improved, it did not address any of the problems of meeting demand when things really go bad on the system, or how to manage the somewhat uncontrollable "green power" resources such as wind and solar. They still flex the system to work around those, and stress the system when a big contingency hits somewhere. MISO's LMP manages generation pretty well, but what it doesn't really do at all is manage the other side.... it doesn't manage load. Imagine how much nicer it would be if you could prevent donut riots on the other side of the hills by magically influencing how badly those people wanted donuts on any particular day? That is the foot in the door for the Smart Grid.

Another post, another day.

So..... did any of this make sense?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

YouTube Love

Just as I wondered if anyone ever bothered to read my ramblings, lo and behold I find some visitors arriving from.... YouTube?

Sure enough:

So, if you just stumbled in here after following Charlie's advice, the two posts he is most likely referring to are over a year old, and can be found at these links:

Why wind power is not the (only) answer

And Now, More Wind!

There's other power grid stuff mixed in here and there on the blog if that's your thing. Just click the "power company" tag at the bottom of this post to filter the rest of the clutter out.

I promised a few posts ago to talk more about this topic, I haven't forgotten. There are developments in the area of load management related to the "smart grid" (use that in Dilbert Buzzword Bingo). Conceptually rather brilliant, even practical, but expensive and slow to be implemented because power companies can move pretty slow. Stay tuned.

Thanks, Charlie.