Operations Challenges provide vital training for wastewater operators

Practice makes perfect.

There are many groups of professionals whose jobs require practice, training and preparation. Emergency management officials often take part in mock-training exercises, firefighters often participate in simulated exercises – and wastewater treatment workers participate in the “Operations Challenge.”

In 2014, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) hosted the 27th Annual Operations Challenge at their annual conference held in New Orleans, LA. For two days, 43 teams from across the country competed through five events focused on all aspects of wastewater operations.

Virginia’s “Terminal Velocity” team, with VML Insurance Programs’ (VMLIP) member Donnie Cagle of the City of Franklin, took their fifth consecutive win in Division 1.

The Blue Ridge Brawlers from the Western Virginia Water Authority – also a VMLIP member – took third place in the Division 1 Safety Challenge and third in the Division 1 Process Challenge.

(L to R): The Blue Ridge Brawlers - Stephen Lofaro, Lacy Burnette, Jon Maples, Randy Williams, Wayne Brown, Tommy Shaver
(L to R): The Blue Ridge Brawlers – Stephen Lofaro, Lacy Burnette, Jon Maples, Randy Williams, Wayne Brown, Tommy Shaver

Each year these operations challenges are held in most states with the top state teams sent to the national event at the WEF.

The five events at the challenges are designed to test how wastewater operators respond to scenarios such as flooding, sewer collapse, process failure, or other emergencies.

Cagle has been participating in the operations challenges since 1989. His team, Terminal Velocity, consists of Cagle and five employees of the City of Virginia Beach – Bobby Williams, Steve Motley, Jason Truitt, Elijah “Emmitt” Smith and Steve Poe.

Terminal Velocity
Terminal Velocity members from top left: Bobby Williams, Steve Motley, Jason Truitt, Donnie Cagle, Elijah “Emmitt” Smith, and Steve Poe

The Blue Ridge Brawlers are all employees of the Western Virginia Water Authority. The team is made up of Lacy Burnette, Wayne Brown, Stephen Lofaro, Jon Maples, Tommy Shaver, and Randy Williams.

“The challenges make us all more well-rounded,” said Tommy Shaver with the Western Virginia Water Authority. “For example our lab technician learned to put up a safety winch, and we are improving our math skills and doing things like learning to calculate overflow rates.”

Events such as Process Control involve the teams receiving a packet of information containing a scenario and data – typically 30 – 40 pages worth. They have 20 minutes to process the information and determine a proper course of action, providing supporting information and their calculations.

“The scenario gives us information on how the plant is operating – our goal is to forecast if we need to make adjustments or changes and what those might be,” said Cagle.

They are only allowed a pencil and calculator – no reference materials. The point is to replicate what they may have with them in a real-world situation.

The Laboratory Event involves testing water samples for things such as dissolved oxygen concentration. The Safety Event may involve a scenario such as a fallen coworker in a confined space. In this situation, the team might have to assemble rescue equipment, test the space for hazardous gases, deploy the equipment and rescue the victim, and complete decontamination procedures, CPR, first-aid, or AED.

The Collection Systems event and Godwin Maintenance events both require physical strength for the teams.

Page from WE&T magazine
Page from WE&T magazine

“The Collections System event could involve a scenario with aging infrastructure that needs to be fixed,” said Cagle. “In that situation, the team would have to remove damaged sections of pipe and install replacement pipe as well as conduct pressure testing – all as quickly as possible.”

The Godwin Maintenance event was described by Blue Ridge Brawler Tommy Shaver as “a great big Lego project.”

This event involves servicing a Godwin Dri-Prime NC80 102-by-76mm trailer-mounted pump set. Teams must service the engine, service the pump, inspect the trailer, program the level transducer, open gate valve, and secure the manhole opening.

“It’s very physical work,” said Shaver.

But it’s work both teams enjoy. In fact, both teams practice for these events after-hours on their own time. Travel costs are paid-for by team sponsors and often the teams will go compete at other state events to gather additional practice.

Virginia’s statewide operations challenge will be held this July at Wintergreen.

“We learn so much from these events,” said Shaver. “From networking with others in our field to talking to vendors and learning about new technology.”

Cagle, whose been with Terminal Velocity for the past eight years, said he’ll continue to participate as long as he’s contributing to the team.

“It’s been wonderful for my career,” said Cagle. “It’s helped me to study a lot more wastewater process knowledge than I ever would have without it.”

And that’s a benefit for everyone. To read more about this year’s event, see the WE&T December, 2014 edition here.

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