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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.