Originally posted on November 8, 2014.
OSHA defines a confined space as a place with restricted access, or a place like a hopper with converging walls where you can get stuck. When the supervisors at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma were asked to identify the confined spaces their workers had to work in, there were a few spaces that ended up on the list that made some wonder if they had just picked up a case of lice…. In other words, they began to scratch their heads.
Earlier I wrote a story about when a person was engulfed in ash in a Precipitator hopper and almost died, (See the post “Tragedy Occurs During a Power Plant Safety Meeting“). This led to an investigation by OSHA a man from OSHA (See the post “OSHA Man Cometh“). Then we were fined and were given a list of tasks that we had to perform by August 1, 1994 (See the post “Power Plant Men Being Summoned by the Department of Labor“). One of those tasks was to create a Confined Space Rescue Team.
The first task for the Rescue team was to put signs on all the confined spaces with a warning that this was a confined space and that you weren’t supposed to go in there unless you have a Confined Spaces Entry Permit.
After that, the Confined Space Rescue Team was was tasked with developing rescue plans for each confined space.
One of the confined spaces on the list that was supplied by the supervisors at the plant was the Battery Room in the Main Switchgear. This was added to the list by Tom Gibson who was the Electric Supervisor for the plant. According to OSHA’s definition of a confined space, a room like the Battery Room, which you entered by walking through a regular door, didn’t meet the definition of a Confined Space even when trying to stretch the definition in imaginary directions.
Tom Gibson explained that he wanted to add the Battery Rooms to the list because he thought that a dangerous conditiono could arise in the battery room if the ventilation fans failed and there was a build up of toxic gases from the batteries and someone walked in there and passed out. They would need to be rescued just as if they were in a confined space.
So, the Battery Room went on the list…. but the Confined Space Rescue Team decided that we weren’t going to create a rescue plan with much detail. We decided that we would just need to open the door and turn on the vent fan. Later, we were able to remove the battery room from the list.
It is interesting how some people come up with their justification for bending the definition of something like a confined space in order that the room would be considered a more hazardous place than normal. There were other ways to make this point besides trying to fit the big rectangular door into the size of a manhole cover.
When we put together the Confined Space Rescue Team, we had the Safety Task Force send out a intra-company letter to each person asking them if they would like to join the Confined Space Rescue Team. We wanted to get a good cross-section of people from different skill sets. I thought we did pretty good.
I can’t remember every one of the original member, but those that I can remember are:
Alan Hetherington, Jimmie Moore, Mike Vogle, Randy Dailey, Ray Eberle, Thomas Leach, Paul Mullon, George Clouse, myselft and um…. I can’t remember the last one. Maybe one of you can remind me.
Once we had the list, the first thing we had to do was to be properly trained as a Confined Space Rescue Team. A company in Dallas, Texas was hired to come to our plant to train us to become Confined Space Rescuteers (I just made that word up… Sort of like Mouseketeers).
While we were taking the training, the trainers kept calling the lead trainer “Dad”, so we began to wonder if this was a family affair. The leader of the training team was much older than the others, and he did treat the young trainers like a father. At one point when one of the trainers was trying to get the lead trainer’s attention, he kept saying, “Dad! Dad!” just like a little kid would try to ask their dad if they could go outside now and play. The rest of us just kept looking at each other like…. yeah… he’s their dad.
It turned out that Dad was really just his initials. His name is David A. David, so they just called him Dad. I thought that was pretty neat and fitting since he did treat them all like he was their dad. When I later moved to Texas, I found that David David is a rather popular name down here. It seems like people named David David own a number of car dealerships in the Dallas area.
We were given special rescue harnesses to wear that was a lot like a regular safety harness, except the place where you clip on to the rope is down at your waist instead of up by your chest. This put the point where you are suspended at the center of your weight (if you are built like your average rescuer… I mean, you don’t have a shape like Santa Claus…. which, if you did, you were probably more likely to be a rescuee instead of a rescuer).
With the focal point in the center of your body, you could easily swing upside down, lay flat or sit straight up. It was pretty neat. You have probably seen someone wearing one of these before…. Tom Cruise demonstrated this technique in the first Mission Impossible movie:
We learned a lot of lessons in the Confined Space Rescue Team Training that I have never forgotten. One important statistic was that somewhere around 70 percent of people that die in confined spaces are would be rescuers.
If you stop and think about this number for a moment, it is rather shocking (if true). This meant that more people died trying to rescue someone from a confined space than actual original victims.
The reason this happens is because when someone in a confined space is found to have passed out, people tend to rush in there to pull them out, not realizing that the reason the person passed out was because there was some sort of toxic gas or a lack of oxygen in the confined space that caused the first victim to pass out.
I remember a tragedy when I was going to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri around the year 1980. I think it was at the Rolla campus where agriculture researchers had a large pit sort of like a deep empty swimming pool where they were doing some kind of experiment.
One of the people working on the project passed out in the bottom of the pit. Three other people in the area rushed down there to help the person. When they climbed down the ladder to help, each of them passed out, and all four of them ended up dead. There was some sort of poison gas that settled down in the pit that was fatal.
We knew then that it was important that we become properly trained as confined space rescuers. We have a culture in the United States to want to help someone in trouble. In some circumstances, a person could even be held liable if they don’t come to someone’s aid in an emergency. It is called a “Duty To Rescue”.
The problem with rushing into a confined space to rescuse someone is that you may actually be putting more lives at risk if you are not properly trained. The first tool we used when we arrived at a confined space was an Air Monitor.
We checked the quality of the air in a confined space for 4 different conditions. First, there had to be enough Oxygen (20.9% hopefully). Not too much Carbon Monoxide, No Hydrogen Sulfide (smells like rotten eggs, only if you smell it briefly and then the smell goes away, it could be because it deadens the receptors in your nostrils making you think you’re safe when you’re not — that’s why you need to use a monitor instead of just your nose). Lastly, we check for an explosive atmosphere. In order to make sure we aren’t crawling into some place that is ready to explode.
The first skill we learned was to tie knots. We actually spent a lot of time learning about knot tying. We had to be able to tie them while wearing rescue gloves. Those are leather gloves that keep you from burning your hand when you are feeding a rope through your hands.
Some of the Rescue knots we learned how to tie were the Figure 8, the Figure 8 on a Bite, and a Figure 8 Follow Thtrough. We also learned to tie a Prusik Knot that could be used to climb right up another rope like you were going up steps.
We learned to tie a Water Knot if we needed to extend the lengths of straps. Other knots were the Girth Hitch, the Double Fisherman’s knot, butterfly knot, and the right way to tie a square knot to make sure that you don’t end up with a granny knot and have your knot slip right off the end of the rope.
During the Confined Space course, we had to be able to tie these knots not only wearing our gloves, but we had to tie them behind our backs in the dark. After all, it was explained to us, that when you are rescuing people from a confined space crawling on your stomach wearing an SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus), you will not be able to see the knots you have to tie in order to pull someone safely out of the hole.
The trainers would inspect our knots and they had to be perfect, or he would take them apart and we would have to do them again. You couldn’t have one rope croxxing over another where it shouldn’t be, even if the knot was correct. The knot had to be picture perfect.”
“Dad” and the training company had a big black trailer that had a big metal maze where they could fill it with smoke. Then, they would put a safety manequin in the trailer somewhere and we would have to go in there wearing our safety equipment and rescue the dummy in the smoky dark maze during a hot summer day when it was about 100 degrees outside.
The most important thing we learned during that class was that even though our instinct is to go in and be a hero and rescue someone in trouble, we have to realize that the majority of the time when a person goes in a confined space to rescue someone they are retrieving a dead body.
The importance of this lesson is that it’s not worth risking the lives of the Confined Space Rescue Team when the person being rescued is most likely dead already. We needed to remember the statistic that 70% of people that die in confined spaces are would be rescuers.
As long as we kept that in mind, when the time came for us to dive right in and pull someone out, we would take the time to do it right and do it safely. What good is trying to rescue someone only to have our fellow rescuers die alongside the original victim?
Originally posted November 15, 2014. I added an addendum at the bottom of the original post:
John Fry had a peculiar way of standing in front of the bathroom door in the electric shop after he had mopped the bathroom floor as he waited for the floor to dry. It was as if he was a sentry on duty in front of the Buckingham Palace in London because he would stand so still. I would amuse myself by picturing him dressed in the red Beefeater uniform standing at attention at the bathroom door at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Only John wasn’t carrying a rifle, he was holding his broom handle. He would hold the handle of the broom so that it was parked just behind his right ear. His head would be slightly bent forward and the expression on his face was one of deep thought. John didn’t speak much. I wondered if he had ever been a guard or a soldier. It would have had to been during the Vietnam War if he had given his age. He was born in 1947.
I always admired John who was doing the job I used to do when I was a janitor at the plant when I had first become a full time employee after four years of working as a summer help. Like the tourists in London, I would do subtle things to try to distract John from his stalwart sentinel position without actually talking to him. I didn’t think it would be fair to actually use words, because John, being the polite person that he was would break out of his guardian stance to say “Hello” or answer a question if I had posed one.
One day while John was standing watch over the wet bathroom floor, I silently came up alongside him with my own broom and I put the handle behind my ear just like him and tried to stand with the same interesting posture John used. I stood there for a few minutes waiting to see if John would respond to me. There was something peaceful about standing next to John meditating on the water evaporating from the tiles behind us. The wooden handle placed behind the ear, pressed up against the side of the head added a sort of stability.
He just continued standing watch. He may have had a slight smile, I’m not sure. When John smiled, it was usually very subtle. It was more in the eyes than on the mouth and since I was only looking out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t really tell. I didn’t wait until the floor completely dried before I left. I still had to be an electrician, and I only had a few minutes to spare before I had to continue on my way.
The other interesting feature about John was that he didn’t turn his head. It was as if he was wearing an invisible neck brace. So, when he walked by, if you said “Hi John”, he might put up one hand as a slight wave, and mutter “Hi” back, but he wouldn’t turn his head toward you, unless he happened to be coming straight in your direction. He was generally looking at the floor a few feet in front of him when he walked. He would walk sort of hunched over as if he was looking for a small lost item on the ground.
I took this to mean that John had some sort of surgery on the vertebrae in his neck that fused them together so that they were immobile preventing him from looking this way or that. He was built like a boxer and looked the part, so I would imagine that in his earlier days, John was in a boxing ring exchanging blows with someone until he had to stop because of the injuries to his spine that could only be mended by fusing his neck into a permanent position of a Buckingham Palace Guard.
It was a pastime of mine to imagine what the Power Plant Men did before they ended up spending their days creating electricity for half the state of Oklahoma. That was until I had the opportunity to ask them and find out what they really did. As I mentioned, I pictured John Fry as a boxer before he became the bathroom Beefeater.
I pictured Johnny Keys as being someone who lived in the Arkansas Ozarks making Mountain Dew from a still up in the hills before he became a machinist.
You would understand that image better if you had seen him before they disallowed the wearing of beards on the plant ground. When Johnny had a beard he looked more like this:
I don’t even want to mention the number of Power Plant Men I pictured as used car salesmen before I knew them better. Ok. All right. I won’t tell you their names, but one of them has the initials: “Gene Day”.
There were a number of Power Plant Men that looked like they were Sergeants in the Army or Navy. Some that come to mind are
and Jim Arnold:
Then there is the group of Mad Scientists. You know the type… They look so normal, but you can tell that in their spare time they are playing with chemicals, or coming up with new Physics equations in order to puzzle those fortunate enough to take a college Physics course….
Before I knew what this group actually did for a living before they arrived at the plant, I immediately thought…. Mad Scientist:
and lastly Merl Wright:
Then there was the group of people that looked like they were in a Hard Rock Band. They were easy to categorize since they all wore dark glasses…. Or maybe they did that because they worked in the welding shop…
There’s Larry Riley:
and Junior Meeks:
Ok. Maybe in their spare time, they also doubled as a biker gang.
Then there was the more simple jobs… For instance, Danny Cain probably worked in a donut shop (which coincidentally… I did):
And also Coincidentally, Danny always liked Donuts.
Then there was the all around nice looking guys who would serve you in a restaurant or bag your groceries like Mike Gibbs:
or Brent Kautzman that reminded me of one of those guys that modeled fancy shirts in a J.C. Penny’s Catalog:
Ok…. I think you get my point…. Sort of like the songs I would hear whenever I was around these guys like I had discussed in the post “Power Plant Music To My Ears” I also categorized the Power Plant Men into various previous jobs… Larry Riley used to say that it was a good idea for me to not be idle because when I was, I would come up with the goofiest (my word, not his) things to do. I suppose he was right.
Anyway, I want to get back to John Fry. You see… my thought about John being an ex-boxer that could no longer box because of a neck injury gave me a sad feeling when I looked at John. I never really knew if he was married, though I didn’t think so. I knew he had a younger brother that lived in Stillwater, while John lived in Ponca City. Besides that, John’s life was a mystery to me.
So, today when I decided to write about John, I looked him up online to see what I could find. I found that he had died at the age of 58 years old on May 10, 2006 while working as a Warehouse Inventory Clerk. I couldn’t find an obituary. It seems that the Trout Funeral Home that handled his funeral either didn’t keep records that far back, or they just didn’t have anything to say about it.
I learned that the Sunset Baptist Church had a service for John but I couldn’t find anything about his funeral there either. Actually, I couldn’t even find the cemetery where he was buried. There is one John Fry in the IOOF cemetery in Ponca City, but I am not able to tell if that is him or not. It seems to me that John, whose brother had died 4 years earlier may have been alone.
I wish I knew more. Maybe someone at the plant can fill me in. Maybe I have the wrong John Fry and John is still around.
As a terrific Power Plant Man Janitor who held his post each day while the floor was drying, I want him to receive the honor that he deserves. I want him to know that there is a group of men that honored his service and respected his life. If I had his picture, I would display it here. The only picture I have is the one I carry in my memory.
About two weeks after I wrote this post last year, John Fry’s daughter Amy ran across this post and left a comment. I have included that below:
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted November 22, 2014: Added an addendum to the end of this story.
Power Plant Pigeons actually believe that the entire reason Power Plants were built in the first place was to provide new rent-free Pigeon roosts for Power Plant Pigeons. Large lakes are placed alongside the Power Plant so that the pigeons can spend their days frolicking away in the immense Pigeon Bird Bath supplied by the electric company. Fields of grain are planted throughout the power plant realm in order to provide a nutritional diet to Power Plant Pigeons. Even men with bright yellow hardhats are supplied for pigeons to fly over and target practice their Power Plant Pigeon Poop dropping skills by aiming at the bright hardhat dots below.
I wrote about the pursuit to remove Power Plant Pigeons from the Power Plant Realm two years ago when I wrote the post “Poison Pill for Power Plant Pigeons“. In that post I explained how we had put out live traps to capture Power Plant Pigeons. Jody Morse taught me that it was better to persuade than to try to force the pigeons into the live traps.
After I joined the electric shop, we came up with a few other ways to rid the area of pigeons. This was more of a personal crusade, since I spent a lot of time working on the roof of the precipitator, which was a favorite haunt of Power Plant pigeons. I had spent a lot of time with a broom sweeping up the Power Plant Pigeon leavings only to come back a few weeks later to find the entire area redecorated with artistic renditions of Salvadore Dali paintings of melting clocks.
One day when when Bill Bennett strolled into the electric shop…. well… “Strutted” is a better word to describe Bill Bennett’s type of strolling. Bill was a skinnier version of a skinny Bill Cosby… for those of you who have not heard me mention him before….
Anyway, Bill strutted into the electric shop carrying a box one day and brought it into the office. He told me that he had ordered some equipment that was going to help me on the precipitator roof with the pigeons. He pulled a smaller box out of the big box and handed it to me. It was a highly technical piece of equipment known as a Sonic Bird Repeller:
Bill had bought 8 of these. Four for each precipitator. They were guaranteed to keep the pigeons away. Evidently they make a high pitched noise that you can’t hear, but the pigeons can and it annoys the heck out of them. I thanked Bill for thinking about me.. I think I was so touched by his concern that I gave him a hug…. or… maybe that was for some other reason…. it’s been a while. This was some time around 1989.
Anyway. I took four of the boxes and headed for the precipitator roof to try them out. On the way there I as I was thinking about the noise that these four bird repellers were going to make, I hoped that the birds were going to be able to hear the annoying sound emanating from the little speakers over the incredibly loud noises of 168 vibrators buzzing constantly and the 672 rappers all banging away as 20 pound slugs of metal pound their anvils in order to shake the ash from the plates inside the precipitator.
You see, the roof of the precipitator is one of the noisiest places on the Power Plant Planet next to all the steam lines pushing thousands of pounds of pressure of steam through them, or next to the large fans blowing air into and out of the boiler. — Actually, the plant was a noisy place in general… so I just hoped that the bird repellers were going to be successful in their attempt to annoy the pigeons with their imperceptible buzzing noise, or whatever noise they made.
When I arrived on the roof, I placed the 4 sonic bird repellers in the four strategic positions on the roof in order to cover the widest area possible…. that is, toward the four corners where the four electrical plug-ins were mounted on the coffin houses. It was thoughtful of the construction hands to have placed those four receptacles just where I wanted to plug in the four sonic bird repellers ten years later.
I tried to see if I could hear anything when I turned them on, but I didn’t hear anything. I figured that was a good thing since I wasn’t supposed to hear anything according to the instructions. So, at least they passed the first test.
I hoped that this wasn’t a situation where the “Emperor Has No Clothes”, except in this case “The Sonic Bird Repeller Has No Sound”. How could I tell? I figured I would wait around and see what happened.
They didn’t interrupt the melodic symphony of rappers and vibrators as they beat and buzzed out their rendition of Brandenburg’s Concerto #3…. well, that’s what I liked to pretend anyway, since I had to spend hours at a time listening to them as I tested and adjusted rappers and vibrators as part of my normal Precipitator Roof Maintenance program.
I thought I would hang around for a while and do some adjustments on the rapper/vibrator cabinets while the pigeons all fled the scene in order to escape the atrocious sonic repellent rhapsody emanating from those four tyrannical jukeboxes I had just placed on the roof. Glancing over my shoulder from time to time, I kept a watch on Fred and Mabel that were perched on one of the side beams not too far one of the Sonic Sound Machines. They seemed to be more interested in what I was doing than being annoyed by the new song in town.
I could have swore that after a half hour or so, those two pigeons had developed a new way of bobbing their heads as they hid from me. It was normal for the pigeons to climb along the beams overhead and periodically peak over the edge to see what I was up to. I didn’t mind too much when their little heads were peering over the side, it was only when their tails waved over the side that I became attentive. That was always a bad sign. They did it so nonchalantly as if they were just trying to turn around on that narrow beam so they could head back in the other direction, but I knew better.
We kept the Sonic Repellers on the roof for about eight months. I never really noticed a decrease in the pigeon population, but I do think a few operators changed their routine hangout to some other part of the boiler. Even Glenn Morgan stopped hanging out around the transformers where he used to go hide when he was trying to “meditate” somewhere where he wouldn’t be disturbed.
I finally figured out that even though I couldn’t hear the sonic bird repellers they would give me a headache. I don’t normally have headaches, so when I do, I know something out of the ordinary is happening…. such as I am being poisoned by Carbon Monoxide, or Curtis Love is telling me how sorry he is that he almost killed me again, or in this case…. I am working for a long period of time in the vicinity of one of the sonic bird repellers. After I figured that out, I would turn them off when I was working around them and my headaches would cease.
I suspected that when we were not on the precipitator roof, the smarter bunch of Power Plant Pigeons probably re-calibrated the repellers so that they would cause headaches in humans, so the pesky humans would leave the pigeons in peace. They weren’t smart enough to figure out that all I had to do was unplug them temporarily. So their backup plan was to drop special packages on my shoulder while I was working under tail causing me to forget to plug the sonic repellers back on when I left in a hurry to go wash up.
After the failed and back-fired experiment with the Sonic Bird Repellers, Bill Bennett had another course of action up his sleeve. He had contacted someone that was known as “The Bird Lady”. She had her own company where she would go around and persuade pigeons (and other birds) to leave their roosts using another unconventional means that was deemed “less cruel” than feeding them to the welder ET (who had moved to Muskogee anyway), and outright poisoning them (which was against company policy).
Her approach was to give them something more like “food poisoning” without killing them. After first meeting her in Bill Bennett’s office, I followed her to her car in the parking lot. She opened her trunk and took a bucket and filled it with grain from a larger tub. then she took some kind of powder and poured it in the bucket. Then she stirred the bucket of grain until the powder had worked its way throughout the grain. She was wearing the same kind of gloves you would wear if you were doing dishes and didn’t want to get dishpan hands.
She explained that the powder contained her special mixture of cayenne peppers and other spices that would upset even the most hardened pigeon gizzard in the Power Plant Kingdom. After they ate her grain, they would decide that the food around this establishment just isn’t up to code and they will fly away to find “greener pastures”.
I took her to the top of the precipitator and she poured some piles of grain not far from where I had tried the sonic bird repellers a couple of years earlier. She didn’t want to place the grain out in the open where the regular songbirds and other flying beasties would eat it.
She came to the plant once each month for about 3 months, and that was about it. The pigeons didn’t seem to like the grain that much, so they left it alone for the most part, except when they were in the mood for Mexican.
The third and final way that we tried Power Plant Pigeon Population Control was by the use of Pellet Guns. Scott Hubbard and I were working on the precipitator roof during an overhaul and the pigeons were being extra pesky. They would pick up twigs and small rocks and stuff and would drop them on our heads in an attempt to chase us away. So, we decided to retaliate. After all, one can only take so much abuse.
So, the next day, we brought our pellet guns from home to work with us and clandestinely carried them to the precipitator roof where we could shoot the birds that were pestering us. I killed one with my first shot which really impressed Scott Hubbard, since I had never mentioned in all the years we carpooled together that I was a hunter (which I wasn’t). That was just beginner’s luck. Scott killed a few more pigeons that day, but not that many when you get down to it.
It didn’t take long for the pigeons to realize what we were up to, so they would just stay hidden on the beams over our heads. This didn’t give us the opportunity to just take pot shots at them, and since we didn’t have all day to just stand around and wait for their little heads to peer over the side of a beam, and since their tails didn’t really contain any “shootable” material, we just left them alone for the most part.
So, we finally decided to do the next best thing than to try to run the pigeons off or kill them. We decided to live with them. I had a few discussions with some of their leaders about where they should NOT poop and I agreed that I would stop calling them names like “Poop Head” hence the names “Fred” and “Mabel”. And after that we sort of got along a lot better. This was a new skill I had learned after I realized that I had to do the same thing for a couple of upper management people at the plant. If I could do it with them, certainly I could learn to get along with a group of Power Plant Pigeons.
I could end this story by saying that we lived happily ever after and maybe we did. I will share a story about what happened once when the pigeons decided to just pack up and leave one day. I can tell you. The result was not pretty. But that is a story for next year (which is only a little more than a month away).
As an addendum to this story:
Years later after I had left the Power Plant to work for Dell in Texas, one day I was while wearing one of my coveted Power Plant shirts, something happened that reminded me of the days on the Precipitator roof. I took this opportunity to let everyone around me experience a little bit of the thrill that I used to experience on a weekly basis…
While painting the ceiling in my son’s bedroom one day, I happened to drip some white paint on my shirt in just the right spot to make it look like a pigeon had pooped on my shirt. Recognizing right away the significance of this, I quickly changed my shirt into a white t-shirt to continue painting.
Instead of quickly rubbing the paint off of the shirt, which probably would have smeared all over and ruined the shirt, I let it dry just as it was. For the past 8 years I have proudly worn this shirt every opportunity I have knowing that when others see me, they will automatically assume that I have been “pooped on” by a bird.
Of course, I have no reaction when I see their inquisitive expression. I just act as if nothing is wrong, which is easy, because nothing is. Here is a picture of the shirt with the pseudo-bird dropping:
Notice that I continue wearing this shirt even though the collar has become frayed over the years. I keep expecting it to disappear one day into the box on the front doorstep that is sent off to help Disabled Vets. Even though I would be honored to have a disabled vet wear my shirt, I think it would be more likely to end up in a rag box.
During the major overhaul on Unit 1 during the spring of 1994 in retrospect, there were signs that something similar to the downsizing at the Oklahoma Electric company that had happened in 1988 was coming around again. The reason the company had to downsize was a little hard to swallow, but they were real. We had painted ourselves into a corner. The punishment was a downsizing (D-Day). The reason was that we had been very successful. The outcome was ironic.
I will save the details of the 1994 downsizing for a post in a few weeks. In this post, I want to talk about the Power Plant Men, and how we all played an important part in bringing the demise of 50% of our own workforce. I will also mention some of the True Power Plant Men that were let go because of the tremendous accomplishments achieved by those very same men.
Let me give you the rundown on the downsizing first before I list those Power Plant Men and Women who were “let go”.
At some point during the major overhaul we were led into the main break room and it was explained to us that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission had decided to lower the electric rates for our customers. At that time, we were selling electricity just about as cheap as anyone in the mid-west. It was explained to us that the Corporation Commission had studied our operation costs (using outdated data) and had decided that we no longer required the 5 cents per kilowatthour we were charging our customers and we would only be able to charge 4 cents from now on (I’m rounding I think). This was a 20 percent reduction in our revenue.
The majority of our costs were fuel and taxes. We couldn’t really reduce these costs (except for the obvious reduction in taxes that result from a lower revenue). The only place we really could cut costs was in personnel. It was a drop in the bucket compared to our other costs, but in order to produce electricity, we couldn’t really do without things like fuel, and transmission costs, etc. and the government wasn’t going to lower our taxes.
An early retirement package was presented to anyone 50 years old and older by a certain date. They could leave with full retirement benefits. The rest? Well, we had to wait our fate which was to take place on August 1, 1994 (or more precisely, the previous Friday, July 29).
This was the major overhaul where the man had been engulfed in ash in the precipitator hopper (see the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting“) and I had to meet with the man from OSHA (see the post: “The OSHA Man Cometh“). The meeting in the break room took place about two weeks after our meeting with the Department of Labor in Oklahoma City (see the post: “Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor“).
So, why do you think that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission thought that we were able to reduce our cost so drastically all of the sudden? We were guaranteed by law a 10% profit as we could not set the cost for our own electricity. This was controlled by the government. We just presented to them our operating costs and they figured out the rest. So, why did they think we could suddenly produce electricity cheaper than any other electric company in the country? Were we really that good?
I could point out that there was an election coming up for one of the members on the Corporation Commission, and this would be something under his belt that he could use to win re-election, but that would only be speculation. The truth was, we couldn’t maintain a 10% profit for our shareholders if we could only charge our customers 4 cents per kilowatthour.
Just as an example, in 1993, the electric company had made $2.72 per share for the shareholders, while by May 1994, we had only made $2.60 Though revenue had gone up by $29 million. This was only a 7% profit based on the revenue. The quarter after the first rate reduction (yeah, there were two) lowered the shareholder return to $2.12.
A year before the downsizing was announced the company had attempted to change their culture so that we could compete in a world where we didn’t have protected areas where we were guaranteed customers. We had instituted the “Quality Process”. I explained this in the post: “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. One of the major goals for this change in “attitude” was to make us more competitive with other electric companies. Well, even though we didn’t really like that the cost reduction was coming before we were ready, one way or the other, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission was going to hold us to that goal.
When describing some of the events that took place during this time, and discuss some of those Power Plant Men that were lost from our view, I feel like I should have some appropriate music playing in the background to express some sorrow for our own loss. So, take a few minutes and listen to this song before proceeding, because, it sets the mood for what I am about to say:
For those who can’t view the youtube link, here is a direct link: “Always On My Mind”
As could be expected, all the Power Plant Men were on edge since we were getting ready for another downsizing. We didn’t know how far down we were downsizing at the time, so we thought that by early retiring everyone 50 years and older, that this would take care of our plant. After all, we had a lot of old fogies wandering around. In the electric shop alone we had four who took the early retirement package (Mike Rose, Bill Ennis, Ted Riddle and O.D. McGaha). Bill Bennett, our A foreman and Tom Gibson our Electric Supervisor were also retiring. So, we were already losing 6 of the 16 people in our department. I’m sure each group was doing their own calculations.
As I mentioned above, I will not dwell so much on the actual downsizing here other than to mention that it became clear that every attempt to help the company out by reducing cost through the quality process was not going to be applied to our bottom line. It was going straight into the customer’s pocket, and maybe it should. This did lower the incentive to be efficient if our company didn’t see a direct Return On Investment, but at this point, it was a matter of surviving.
I wasn’t so concerned about my friends that were taking the early retirement package. Even though their long term plans were suddenly changed, they still were not left empty handed. It was those Power Plant Men that were let go that were too young to retire that I missed the most. I will list some here. I regret that I don’t have their pictures, because, well, this was just at the start of the World Wide Web, and people didn’t take digital pictures back then.
Some of the welders that I missed the most were Duane Gray, Opal Ward (previously Brien), Jim Grant, J.D. Elwood and Donnie Wood. Mike Crisp was the one Machinist that I missed the most. I don’t remember if Jerry Dale was old enough to take the retirement package.
Jerry Dale always seemed to have a positive attitude. One of the phrases I remember when thinking of Jerry was when he was driving me home when I was a summer help. Sonny Kendrick was in the truck with us. We had come upon a car that was travelling rather slow in Hwy 177. Jerry grabbed the handle to shift into a different gear and asked me if he should put it into overdrive and just drive over the car. For some reason, the look of total satisfaction when he said that has always stuck in my mind (or as Willie Nelson says, “You were always on my mind”).
Wayne Griffith was a dear friend that was on the Labor Crew (see the post: “Wayne Griffith and the Power Plant Computer Club“). He was let go along with Gail Mudgett.
We lost both janitors, John Fry (a friend to everyone. I recently wrote a post about John, “Power Plant Janitor John Fry Standing Guard as Floors Dry“) and Deanna Frank. Charlotte Smith from the warehouse found a job at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.
The mechanics lost the most, because there were more of them, A few of these were able to transfer to other areas in the company but most of them were let go. Here is the list of mechanics that were gone after August 1, 1994: Two Toms, Tom Flanagan and Tom Rieman, I think they both found jobs in other areas, as did Preston Jenkins and Ken Conrad (who used to call me “Sweet Pea”) See the post “Ken Conrad Dances with a Wild Bobcat“. Mike Grayson was let go. I still remember the first day Mike arrived when I was a summer help. He was there when we were fighting the dragon (See the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past Go to Fight Dragons Today“).
Two other mechanics who were greatly missed were Martin Prigmore (because without him, we didn’t have a certified P&H crane operator… kind of overlooked that one), and Tony Talbott who was the kindest Power Plant Man from Perry, Oklahoma. Martin Prigmore was later shot to death in Morrison Oklahoma in an encounter with his wife’s former husband.
The Instrument and Controls department lost Bill Gregory and Glen Morgan.
A side story about Glen Morgan (or was it Nick Gleason? Someone can correct me). One day, someone at the plant was listening to a Tulsa Radio Station when the news came on and said that the police were looking for Glen Morgan because he had just robbed a bank in Tulsa. They said that he was from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and they described his car. Whoever heard the radio told Glen that he was wanted for robbing a bank in his red car. So, he called home and asked his wife to look in the garage to see if his car was still there. It was. So, he quickly called the Tulsa police department and let them know that they had the wrong man.
Gary Wehunt was the one electrician that was let go. He had thought he was going to be picked 7 years earlier at the first downsizing. The one accomplishment that he was most proud of when he left was that he didn’t have any sick leave left over. He always made sure to take it as soon as he had accumulated a day.
I won’t list the operators that were downsized because I couldn’t tell which ones were old enough to retire or not and who was actually let go, if any. Maybe Dave Tarver can add that as a comment below (I will discuss Gerald Ferguson’s crew in an upcoming post). — Thanks Dave (see Dave’s comment below). Jim Kanelakos (which I remembered vividly) and Jack Delaney.
I do know that this was the second downsizing that Gene Day was old enough to retire, but he never took the package. Everyone knew he was as old as dirt, but for the obvious reason that everyone wanted to have him around for comic relief, no one ever considered the Power Plant could function without him. So, he stayed around for many years.
One thing about working in the Power Plant was that people were rarely fired. When it did happen, alcohol was usually involved. Sometimes a disability, such as was the case with Yvonne Taylor and Don Hardin.
About a year and a half before the downsizing one of the welders, Randy Schultz was let go because he repeatedly showed up to work intoxicated. I don’t remember the details, but it did seem that he spent a lot of time sleeping in one of the old Brown and Root warehouses in order to sober up. The company had to special order a hardhat for Randy because his head was too big for a standard hardhat. Randy was later wounded by a gun shot in Stillwater Oklahoma during a fight in the middle of the night.
Doug Link showed up one night a couple of months before the downsizing for a “Condenser Party” (when one of the condensers is open while the unit is still online, and it is cleaned out). Doug was ordering the workers to go into the condenser before all the safety precautions had been taken. He had been drinking. This was the night that I took Ray Eberle out to the Substation to light up the fluorescent bulbs (“See the post: “Switching in the Power Plant Substation Switchyard“).
I knew at the time that Doug was going through some hard times at home. I was sorry to see him go. He was one of the few engineers that took the time to listen to my incessant ramblings on just about any topic. I was glad to learn that after a very difficult time, Doug picked himself back up and regained his integrity.
Whether a person is laid off or fired, the results can be devastating. A person’s self-worth is suddenly shaken which throws the family into turmoil. The Power Plant Men and Women that were left at the plant after the downsizing knew this, and we were forever changed by the loss of such a large number of friends that we considered family all at once. It took us a couple of years to deal with the emotional impact. Even to this day, I do my best to keep them on “always on my mind”.
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted December 13, 2014.
It seemed like it was getting dark already when Scott Hubbard and I were driving home from the plant in Scott’s pickup on January 16, 1991. We were listening to NPR on the radio, as we did most days. Just as we were entering Stillwater on Hwy 177, NPR suddenly stopped their regular broadcast to announce that there were reports of bombs dropping in Baghdad.
Up to this point, we had all hoped that Saddam Hussein, seeing the massive buildup of the U.S. and other countries at his border would pull his forces out of Kuwait and go home. At 5 pm Central Standard Time (2 am Baghdad time), the week long air assault on Saddam Hussein’s troops began. Scott dropped me off at the church where he had picked me up 9 1/2 hours earlier and I drove straight home. Glued to the radio for any new update.
When I arrived home, my wife Kelly met me by the door to tell me the news. By the expression on my face, she could tell I had already heard. I was not able to speak. I just gave her a hug and broke out in tears. As much as we knew that this was necessary, and even though we had watched the buildup over the previous three months, I was not prepared for the actual assault to begin.
For the next five hours we watched as Peter Arnett and his camera man reporting from their hotel room in the middle of Baghdad showed actual footage of anti-aircraft fire continuously firing into the night sky. We could see our bombs hitting carefully determined targets. The battle was taking place right in our living room.
My brother Gregory T. Breazile was (and still is) a U.S. Marine officer in Saudi Arabia preparing for the ground assault. We had been able to talk to him a few days earlier when AT&T setup a bank of phones in the desert so that the soldiers could phone home. – On a side note… my mom was not too happy when she received a very large bill from AT&T for the phone calls to her house. She called AT&T and complained. I think they gave her a refund.
I went to sleep that night after the sun had come up in Baghdad, and even though the bombings were continuing, the initial impact of what was happening had finally been processed in my brain.
The next day at work the radios around the Power Plant were all tuned to stations that were keeping everyone updated on the progress of the Gulf War (Desert Storm, they were calling it). I had a job for the next week or so organizing the old Brown and Root electrical parts warehouse. This was a long tedious job that consisted of going through boxes of all sorts of electric parts and organizing them into meaningful piles of good junk.
I drove one of the pickups over to the warehouse and positioned it so that the passenger side door was lined up with the door to the warehouse. Then I turned the volume on the radio all the way up so that I could hear it in the warehouse. It was an AM radio that didn’t have receptions inside the warehouse. I didn’t want to miss any new information about what was going on in Iraq. The radio in the truck didn’t have reception when it was in the warehouse, so I would carry (or drag) the boxes toward the front of the warehouse so that I could be close enough to hear the radio.
After one week of constant bombing and after the U.S. along with our allies which consisted mostly of Britain, France and Saudi Arabia along with another 30 countries around the globe had flown over 100,000 bombing missions and dropped over 88,000 tons of bombs on Iraq’s army, the U.S. was finally ready for the ground assault.
Soon after the ground assault began, it became apparent that Iraq’s troops were no match for the U.S.. Their Soviet tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft found it difficult to inflict a dent on the side of one of our tanks. It was apparent that the United States had won the arms race and the demise of the Soviet Union was right around the corner (exactly 11 months later on December 26, 1991). All they could do was blindly send some SCUD missiles toward us hoping to hit a target…. any target. The most casualties that occurred on the allies was when a SCUD missile hit a barrack in the middle of the desert killing 28 soldiers.
My brother Greg was attached to the first Marine Division and was part of the group that attacked the Iraqi Republican Guard at the Kuwait Airport. He later described the battle something like this…. “Rockets were being fired in both directions. Bombs exploding all over the place. The entire scene seemed like chaos. Even though it looked like it was a fierce battle, it was as if we were being protected somehow. Throughout the entire siege, we didn’t experience so much as one broken fingernail as we cleared the enemy from the airport.”
The ground assault lasted exactly 100 hours. In that time Kuwait was liberated, and the Republican Guard was decimated.
The Power Plant Men and Women did what they could to show their support for our troops. A great many of the Power Plant Men had served in the Vietnam War and they were proud patriots. There might have been a few that felt like we had no business there in the first place, but those that I remember weren’t the real Power Plant Men.
The critics of the first Gulf War said that freeing Kuwait from their Iraqi invaders was all about oil. That was pretty evident when Saddam Hussein set over 700 oil wells on fire as his troops were being driven out of Kuwait. Kuwait’s main product is oil. That’s hardly debatable.
The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma knew the importance of energy to our country, and a fight over oil is just about as serious as it gets. Those people who criticize our protection of the oil fields in Kuwait by saying that this was just a fight over oil lack the same perspective as Power Plant Men. A steady flow of energy in our lives is essential to our way of life.
A response to that may be that maybe (… “may be that maybe”…. interesting way of saying that… I’m sure my English Teacher would have had something to say about that one) our way of life needs to be changed. I would agree with that, but I would argue that it needs to be changed for the better. Let me try to explain what Power Plant Men across our country know each morning when they awaken.
From the alarm clock that rings in the morning that wakes the Power Plant Man, to the light in the bathroom where they take their shower with hot water, energy is being supplied to their house either through electricity or some sort of natural gas or oil. The act of eating breakfast, whether it is eating a bowl of cereal with milk that has been cooled in the refrigerator or frying some eggs, all this takes energy.
All the Power Plant Men had to drive to the Power Plant located out in the country 20 miles from the nearest towns (except for Red Rock or Marland where few people lived). It would be hard to produce the electricity at the plant if the Power Plant Men and Women didn’t have gasoline to drive their cars to work each and every day. Even if they had an electric car, they would have to charge it with electricity that comes from a power plant that is either powered from coal or natural gas for the most part.
Sure we have a dream of a world where all cars are electric all charged with electricity that is generated without fossil fuels. That is a noble dream and the struggle to reach that point some day is one worth having, but today it doesn’t exist. We can’t transition to that world overnight. In the meantime, the free flow of oil is and should be one of our greatest priorities.
Power Plant Men live with this priority every day. The free flow of electricity to our nation is just as vital. Look at the disasters that happen when a region of the United States suddenly goes dark. Each Power Plant Man and Woman plays their part in ensuring that never happens.
Each Electric Company employee has a picture in the back of their mind of someone laying on an operating table and as the surgeon is in the middle of the operation, the lights suddenly go out. Or an elevator full of people travelling up around the 20th floor of a building when all of the sudden it stops and they are trapped in the dark. What then? No Power Plant Man wants that to happen.
So, how do you thank someone who has freely risked their life serving our country? Someone who is willing to die for our country? How can you? Who am I that others should be willing to die for me? All I can think of doing is to pray “God Bless Them”.
Some Power Plant veterans may have wished they could have been there fighting with their brothers in arms in the Gulf War. The truth is, those men were needed right where they were. The best way to thank our troops during the Gulf War was by showing that we supported what they were doing and by continuing to perform our daily tasks of keeping the lights on at home by producing a steady flow of electricity. Day in and day out without fail.
The reason we take electricity for granted is because the Power Plant Men and Women in this country has been performing their job nearly flawlessly. it is almost like the words my brother used to describe the battle at the Kuwaiti Airport, “it was as if we were being protected somehow”. There are so many things that can go wrong that could bring down the electric grid in the United States, it is amazing that we are able to depend on electricity being there when we turn on the TV.
So, how do you thank the Power Plant Men and Women that work each day to bring us that reliable source of energy? How can we? Certainly the service they provide is far more than the salary and benefits provided by the Electric Company. We can show our appreciation by letting them know that we support them.
When you see an Electric Company truck driving down the road, smile at them and wave. When you run across a Power Plant Man eating lunch at Braum’s, buy him a cup of coffee.
Power Plant Men generally spend the majority of their waking hours in isolation at a Power Plant where they don’t directly see the benefit of their labor. All they experience is their paycheck every couple of weeks and their benefits. They don’t often willingly leave their job to go work somewhere else. They spend their entire working life laboring to produce electricity for others.
If there is a Power Plant Man in your neighborhood, maybe you could give them some small Christmas present this holiday to show your appreciation for the service they have been providing you and your family this year.
If there is a soldier living nearby, do the same. Find any opportunity to show them you appreciate their service to our country. A Braum’s Gift Card perhaps!
Originally posted December 20, 2014:
When my children were young and the season was right and I had finished telling them all the Gene Day stories, when they were in just the right Christmas spirit, I would tell them about the Power Plant Christmas Star and how it would shine brightly over Ponca City, Oklahoma around Christmas time, calling shepherds and Power Plant Operators to come and see what technological miracle had taken place on Bonnie Drive on the North End of the thriving community known as Ponca City (Did I actually make an entire paragraph out of one sentence? — Geez. This is why my English Teacher was always slapping my hand — Catholic school…. you can imagine how that was).
The story actually begins way before the Christmas season starts, but some time after Christmas decorations have gone up in Target and Wal-Mart. That is, some time after Halloween, but before Thanksgiving. November, 1984 was the first time I had a hint that something big was going to be happening soon. At the time, I had been an electrician for one year, and since that time, a new machinist had arrived at the plant named Randy Dailey. We thought he looked a lot like Barney Fife, only he seemed to be a lot smarter. Here is a picture of the two. See what you think.
Ok. I admit it. that’s not really Randy Dailey. That really is Barney Fife’s Smarter Brother. Here is a real picture of Randy Dailey:
I happened to be walking through the machinist shop at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma on my way to the tool room when I noticed a big pile of large cans stacked up next to the large press. These cans were about the size of a large can of beans.
The labels had been removed from all the cans, so I couldn’t tell if they were beans, corn, Hawaiian Punch, or what. Only Randy Dailey knew for sure. He had set up some sort of assembly line where he was punching holes through these cans in the shapes of stars and Christmas trees, and I don’t even remember what else. Ginger Bread Men maybe…. Hopefully Randy will comment at the bottom of this post to answer the unanswered questions about the can decorations and not leave a comment about how I look more like Barney Fife than he does and how he actually looks more like Cary Grant.
One could only imagine what Randy was going to do with hundreds of cans with Christmas designs punched out around them. I know that one could only imagine that, because I was one. No one else seemed puzzled about the cans, so I pretended not to be puzzled also. It seemed to work, because no one stopped me on the way to the tool room to ask me about the puzzled look on my face. Which was surprisingly not that uncommon since I walked around a lot puzzled by a great many things.
I figured that some day all this can punching (as opposed to cow punching which is something entirely different) would some day make sense to me. Each year, Randy would do the same thing. He would fill the machine shop with cans and then proceed to punch Christmas Trees and stars into them. It finally made sense to me two years later. After I had moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma.
My wife and I were sitting around one night in our luxurious two bedroom, one bath, one dog house in Ponca City trying to decide what to do for our first wedding anniversary.
I suggested that we try to solve the riddle of the Randy Dailey Christmas cans. My wife was not at all surprised, because during our wedding night a year earlier I had made up a story called “Barney Frumpkin, the Christmas Pumpkin”, so, solving a riddle like Randy Dailey’s Christmas Cans seemed right up my alley and in no way out of the ordinary.
Ok. Here is a side story about Barney Frumpkin the Christmas Pumpkin. Keep in mind that I just whipped this one out off the top of my head and it was 30 years ago tomorrow (December 21, 1985):
Once upon a time there was a pumpkin patch out in the country by a small town.
Each year the people from the town would go out to the pumpkin patch to pick out a pumpkin before Halloween,
in order to make Jack-O-Lanterns and/or Pumpkin Pie.
This one particular year, there was one pumpkin in the patch named Barney Frumpkin.
He had heard from the other pumpkins that the farmer had been talking to someone and said,
“Tomorrow the people from the town will be here to pick their own special pumpkin, so I want everything to be just perfect.”
All the pumpkins were excited about being chosen by a family, but none were as excited as Barney Frumpkin.
Barney stretched and stretched himself as much as he could to try to stand out as a very special pumpkin.
He could imagine himself shining bright orange among the green vines.
When the day finally arrived, Barney was as excited as he could be as children and parents walked through the pumpkin patch,
Each family looking for their own special Halloween Pumpkin.
As each family came near to Barney, he would wish as hard as he could wish that this would be the family for him.
Each time throughout the day, as each family walked by Barney, none of them so much as gave him a second glance.
Toward the end of the day, as the crowds began to thin, Barney suddenly came to the realization that he was all alone.
No one had chosen him to be their special Halloween Pumpkin.
What Barney didn’t know was that he had a very large black spot on one side that made him look like he was rotten.
As the sun set that day, Barney was left all alone in the pumpkin patch.
All the other pumpkins had been picked and carried away.
Barney Frumpkin sat in the patch and cried.
No one heard him except you and I.
As each day began, the sun was lower in the sky and the nights became colder.
Soon there was snow on the ground that left Barney Frumpkin rather wrinkled and dry.
Barney felt as if the world had left him behind and he wanted to die.
So, he just laid there in the withered pumpkin patch sinking slower into the ground.
Shivering in the snow one night, he thought he could hear songs coming from the village.
In the distance people were singing carols of happiness and joy.
In the darkness Barney felt as if his life was coming to an end.
Then suddenly Barney became aware of a different sound.
The sound of someone humming quietly to their self.
Unknown to Barney, it was an evil witch making her way through the pumpkin patch.
Back to the hovel she would call home if she had a heart.
The people of the town called her a witch and she had no friends.
As she approached Barney, the moon peered out from behind a cloud to take a look.
The witch was about to step on Barney Frumpkin when the moonlight appeared.
The witch stopped in her tracks and looked down at the shriveled pumpkin at her feet.
The one with the large black spot on the side.
She had never seen such a wonderful site in all the days of her life.
It was the perfect pumpkin laying right there in front of her!
Without hesitation, the witch carefully picked up the pumpkin.
She smiled a smile that was so big that the cloud covering the rest of the moon scurried away,
Allowing the moonlight to brighten up the pumpkin patch.
The witch hugged Barney Frumpkin with as much care as she could muster.
She carefully carried him home to her hovel which would now become a home.
Barney was so surprised that for a while he was in shock.
He wasn’t sure what had happened because suddenly everything had turned dark.
It wasn’t until he saw the fire in the fireplace that he realized that someone had taken him home.
The witch set Barney on a table close to the fire where Barney could look around the room.
Standing close by, he saw the witch leaning toward him.
Barney Frumpkin had never seen such a beautiful site!
Barney Frumpkin, the Christmas Pumpkin and the Witch lived happily ever after.
End of Side Story. Back to the mystery about Randy Dailey and his Christmas cans.
So, I went to the kitchen and took the phone book out of the drawer and looked up Randy’s address…. hmm…. Bonnie Drive. In 1986, we didn’t have the World Wide Web, so I couldn’t Google the address. So, I looked in the middle of the phone book to where they had inserted maps of the town, and found the street.
Kelly and I climbed into our car and drove north up Union Street to Lora Street and over to Bonnie Drive. The mystery of the Christmas Cans was immediately solved even before we had turned the corner. The entire neighborhood was lit up. Randy’s Christmas Cans were lined up and down both sides of the street, up and down each drive way on the block and each can had a light shining in it so that you could see the punched out Christmas Trees and Stars shining brightly.
Randy’s house was easy to see halfway up the street because it was all lit up.
You can see the Flag Pole in the front and the Ham Radio tower in the backyard. Well, the Ham Radio tower had a large star on the top of it, and there were strings of lights coming down on all sides. The entire street was lit up with Christmas lights and those in front of Randy’s house had a light show going that was fantastic. Randy had programmed the lights himself. The Nativity Scene on the front lawn was like none I had ever seen before. I wish Randy would send me a picture of it (I would put it in this post).
So, the Christmas story that I told my Children went something like this:
The Evil Plant Manager (Eldon Waugh) had issued a decree that no Christmas Lights would be visible on the plant grounds. And the Power Plant Men were distraught. Then there were unknown sounds coming from the machine shop. They went, “Punch, Punch, Punch. Zing. Punch, Punch, Punch, Zing…” Like that.
Cans were quietly being donated while the lone Power Plant Elf (Randy Dailey) punched out designs on cans. Careful to keep them hidden where the Evil Plant Manager wouldn’t see them. Which was easy, because he never dared to stroll through any shop where work might be happening.
Then when Christmas Eve came, and the Operators were keeping watch over the boilers at night, An Angel of the Lord appeared to them and said, “Lo! Climb to the top of Unit 2 Boiler and look yonder North toward Ponca City!”
And Lo! When the Power Plant Operators and any other Shepherds that happened to be nearby (the cattlemen were all tucked in their beds with visions of Salt Licks dancing in their heads. Apparently, cattlemen don’t need to keep watch at night like Shepherds do.. unless they are trying to catch cow tippers).
Anyway, the Operators and any other shepherds that happened to be nearby climbed up the 250 stairs (or took the elevator), and gazed upon the Conoco Oil Refinery lighting up the night sky, they became puzzled.
Then the Angel said, “No. Over that way.” And Lo! The Power Plant Men of Operator Fame gazed upon a Star shining brightly in the night! With streams of light coming down in a fantastic light show specially programmed for the occasion to elicit maximum emotions.
And the Angel said unto the Power Plant Men and any stray Shepherds, “Be not afraid! I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people! Know that today, this very power plant has supplied the electricity to power The Star of Ponca City! To honor the baby Jesus that was born 2,000 years ago in the town of Bethlehem! The Son of God!”
When the Angel of God had left them, the Power Plant Men said to one another, “Let us go to Ponca City (during our midnight lunch break) and see Randy Dailey’s Christmas Star and all the magical Christmas Cans for ourselves!”
So, they hurried off to their pickup trucks and created a convoy of Ford and Chevy’s and an occasional GMC and Dodge Ram and raced up Highway 177 to Ponca City. Arriving at Randy’s house, they found the Nativity Scene of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus and they were amazed! They spread the word to all the Power Plants letting them know how important it was to keep the Star of Ponca City burning for all to see. Then they all returned back to work.
And now you know…. The rest of the Story! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night!
Originally posted December 27, 2014:
The Power Plant Men and Women knew that a major downsizing was going to occur throughout the company on Friday, July 29, 1994. The upper management had already experienced the preliminary stages of this particular downsizing since it started at the top. Over a four month period that started with an early retirement, it worked its way down the ranks until the actual Power Plant Men at the plant in North Central Oklahoma were going to be downsized on that one day.
The people that had taken the early retirement (which was available for anyone 50 years and older) had already left a couple of months earlier. Since the downsizing was being decided from the top down, we soon learned that our Plant Manager Ron Kilman would no longer be a Plant Manager. He was too young to take the early retirement. I believe he was 47 at the time.
The person taking Ron’s place was Bill Green, a guy that was old enough to take the early retirement, but decided to stay. Bill was 53 years old at the time. Perhaps he knew in advance that he had a secure position before the deadline to choose the early retirement.
The final week when the downsizing was going to take place, several things were happening that made the entire week seem surreal (this is a word that means — sort of weird and unnatural). I was spending the week in the old Brown and Root building because we were busy training everyone at the plant about Confined Space Safety and the OSHA regulations that we had to follow.
We had to have all the OSHA training completed by August 1 in order to avoid the fines that OSHA had given us back in April (See the post: “Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor“). We had formed a confined space rescue team and taken the required Confined Space training (see the post “Finding and Defining Power Plant Confined Spaces“). We were using the old training room in the old Brown and Root Building because we wanted it to be away from the plant area where the foremen wouldn’t be bothered while they were taking their class.
The first day of training, Ben Brandt the assistant plant manager was in the the class. He was going to be a plant manager at another plant, I think it was the plant in Seminole county.
I could tell that Ben was not interested in being in the training, and given all that was going down that week, I could see why. We would say something in the class about how you had to fill out your confined space permit and turn it in to the Control Room, and Ben would shake his head in disagreement as if he didn’t think that was ever going to happen…. Well, times were changing in more ways than one that week.
Tuesday afternoon was when things really began to get weird…. We knew that Friday would be the last day for a bunch of Power Plant Men, but we didn’t yet know who. During the previous downsizing in 1987 and 1988, we at least knew who was going to leave months before they actually had to leave. Now we were down to just a few days and we still didn’t know who had a job come August 1 (next Monday).
On Tuesday afternoon, one at a time, someone would be paged on the Gaitronics Gray Phone (the plant PA system) by one of the four foremen that had survived.
We were cutting the number of first line foremen in Maintenance from 13 down to 4 and getting completely rid of two levels of management. So, that we would no longer have an A foremen and a Supervisor over each group. So, we wouldn’t have a position like an Electric Supervisor or a Mechanical Maintenance Supervisor.
Our new foremen were Andy Tubbs,
and Mark Fielder.
All great guys!
So, when one of them would page someone on the Gray Phone, we knew that they were going to be asked to meet them upstairs in the main office somewhere. Then they were told that they had a position on that person’s team.
So, picture this scenario. About 160 of the original 218 employees were waiting to learn their fate that week (the rest had retired). It was late Tuesday afternoon when Alan Hetherington told us that they had already begun calling operators to the office to tell them they had jobs. They were not calling anyone to tell them that they didn’t have a job. So, when you heard someone’s name being called, then you knew they were safe (well…. safe is a relative term).
On Wednesday just before lunch, I was called to the office by Alan Kramer. He told me he was going to be my new foreman. I hadn’t really worried about it up to that point, because, well, I just figured that I was pretty well irreplaceable since there really wasn’t anyone else that would go climbing around inside the precipitators during overhauls, so they would want to keep me around for that reason alone.
With that said, it was at least a little less stressful to actually have been told that I did have a position. After all, I had caused so much trouble the previous few years (see 50% of the posts I have written to find out how), enough for some people to hold grudges against me. So, I did have this small doubt in the back of my head that worried about that.
Alan Kramer explained to me that we would no longer have teams for each area of expertise. We wouldn’t have teams of electricians or Instrument and Controls, or Testing, etc. We would be cross-functional teams. We would learn more about that next Monday.
When I returned to the Brown and Root building, the rest of the confined space team asked me if I had a job. I told them I did. At this point, all work at the plant seemed to have ceased. Everyone was waiting around to receive a call on the Gray Phone.
At first, we thought this was going to be like the first downsizing where each person was called to the office and told if they had a job or they didn’t have a job. By Wednesday afternoon, it became apparent that things weren’t working out that way. The only people being called to the office were people that were being told they did have a job. No one was being told if they didn’t.
Either this was a cruel joke being played on the Power Plant Men and Women, or the management hadn’t really thought about the consequences of doing this. It became apparent right away to everyone including those that had been told they had a position that this was a terrible way to notify people about their future. What about those that hadn’t been called to the front office? What were they supposed to think?
About half of the Power Plant Men had received the call, when it seemed that the calls had just stopped some time on Thursday morning. We had finished our last training session in the Brown and Root building and we were just meeting as a team to discuss our next steps in creating Confined Space rescue plans. We were not making much progress, as everyone was just sitting around in a mild state of shock staring into space.
Alan Hetherington had not been called, so he figured that he wouldn’t have a job after Friday. We discussed other people that were being left out. No one on Gerald Ferguson’s team at the coal yard had been called (which included Alan). We later heard that Gerald Ferguson, all distraught that his team had been wiped out was in disbelief that they had let his entire team go. He blamed it on the fact that his team had refused to participate in the Quality Process since it was deemed “voluntary”.
By Thursday afternoon, the stress became so bad for some that they had gone to Jim Arnold and asked him point blank if they had a job after Friday and he refused to say anything to them. Preston Jenkins became so stressed out that he had to go home early because he was too sick with stress.
We knew that Bill Green was the new plant manager.
Jim Arnold was the new Supervisor of Operations and Jasper Christensen was the Supervisor of Maintenance. It seemed to us as if the downsizing was being orchestrated by Jim Arnold, as he was the one going all over the plant on Thursday and Friday coordinating things.
When we came into the office on Friday morning, all the radios had been taken from the electric shop office. I was asked to go up to the logic room and shutdown the Gray phone system. It became clear that Jim Arnold didn’t want anyone listening to what was going on throughout the day.
It was normal having Highway Patrol at the plant, because they were the regular plant guards at the front gate, but today there were a lot of them, and they were in uniform. They were escorting people off of the plant grounds one at a time. We were told that we were not supposed to interact with people being escorted off of the plant grounds. We weren’t supposed to approach them to even say goodbye.
It took the entire day to escort people out of the plant this way. It was very dehumanizing that great Power Plant Men who we had all worked alongside for years were suddenly being treated as if they were criminals and were being escorted off of the plant grounds by armed Highway Patrolmen.
It was just as devastating for those that were left behind. This was a clear indication that those people treating our friends this way were going to be our new supervisors (not our immediate foremen) and that they had a warped sense of superiority. They may have justified their actions in their minds in order to sleep at night, but the reality was that at least one person involved in this extraction of humanity was relishing in his new found power.
No one had been more left behind than the plant manager, Ron Kilman who was too young to accept the retirement package.
He knew he didn’t have a future with the company for the past couple of months as this entire saga had been unfolding at the plant. During the early retirement party for those that were leaving before the slaughter took place, Ron (an avid airplane pilot) had worn a shirt that said, “Will Fly for Food”, which he revealed by opening his outer shirt while introducing some of the retirees. This had brought an applause that was reminiscent of the first day he had arrived some seven years earlier when he told a joke during his first meeting with the plant.
There were those at the plant that had reason to dislike Ron for specific decisions that he had made during his tenure at the plant. One that comes to mind (that I haven’t already written about) is when Ray Eberle’s house was on fire and he left the plant to go fight the fire and make sure his family was safe. Ron docked his pay for the time he was not on the plant grounds since he wasn’t a member of the voluntary fire department. Ron has admitted since that time that there were certain decisions he made while he was Plant Manager that he would have changed if he could.
I felt as if I understood Ron, and knew that he was a good person that wanted to do the right thing. I also knew there were times when a Plant Manager had to make unpopular decisions. I also knew from my own experience that Ron, like everyone else was just as much human as the rest of us, and would occasionally make a decision he would later regret. The times when Ron tried docking my pay after working long overtime hours, I just worked around it by taking vacation to keep my overtime and figured that he was playing the role of Plant Manager and following the rules the way he saw fit.
Some time shortly after lunch, Ron came into the electric shop office and sat down. This was the first time in those seven years that he had come just for a visit and it was on his last day working for the company. Ron just didn’t know what to do.
He explained that no one had told him anything. No one had officially told him to leave. No one had escorted him off of the plant grounds. He wasn’t sure how he was supposed to make his exit. Was he just supposed to go to his car and drive out the gate and never return? No one told him anything.
The way Ron Kilman was treated Friday, July 29, 1994, was a clear representation of the type of people that were left in charge next Monday morning on August 1. The entire plant knew this in their heart. As much grief that was felt by the people being escorted out of the gate after years of loyal service to their company, those that were left behind felt every bit of that grief.
This was the darkest day in the history of the Power plant in North Central Oklahoma. The Power Plant Men left behind by this experience were negatively effected for years after that day. There was a bitterness and sorrow that took a long time to recover in their hearts.
The worst part of the event was that it was so unnecessary. We understood that we had to downsize. We had accepted that some of us would be leaving. Each person at our plant had a level of decency that would accept the fact that when the time came for them to leave, they would hug their friends, say goodbye and with the help of each other, the rest would help them carry their stuff to their car and say goodbye.
We were all robbed of this opportunity. Everyone, even those left behind, were suddenly treated as if we were criminals. We had a “Black Friday” at the plant before, on February 15, 1985 (see the post “Power Plant Snitch“). This time the impact was ten times worse.
All I can say to those who made the decision to handle the layoff this way is: “Shame on you! What would your Mother think if she knew what you did?”
The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had gone from 360 employees in 1987 down to 124 employees on August 1, 1994 after the second downsizing. Monday morning when we arrived at work, the maintenance department met in the main break room to be told how we were going to survive the loss of 100 employees. With only 7 electricians left, I kept trying to add up on my fingers how we could possibly keep up with all the work we had to do.
Jasper Christensen stood up and after saying that he understood how we must feel about our present situation, he told us that we will have to each work harder. I shook my head in disbelief (inside my head only… I didn’t really shake my head, as it was frozen with the same blank stare everyone else was wearing). I knew we weren’t going to be working harder. — What does that really mean anyway. I thought he should have said, “We will each have to work “smarter” because we can’t really work “harder”. Jasper was a nice person, but he never really was much for words so I gave him a pass on this one.
Interestingly, the three people in charge at the plant, Jasper, Jim Arnold and Bill Green were all 53 years old, and only within 4 months in age from each other. They all belonged to the “old school way of doing things” (see the post: “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“). As Jasper continued in his speech I noticed that gone was any talk of working together to achieve our goals. I immediately felt that we had just rolled back our management to a time before our first downsizing in 1987 when the Evil Plant Manager used to rule the plant with an iron fist.
I felt this way because we were being told how we were going to change everything we do without giving any of our own input. For instance, we would no longer have a Quality Action Team. That was disbanded immediately. We would no longer hold Quality Team meetings (we were also told that the Quality process was not going away, though we couldn’t see how it was going to work). The Safety Task Force did survive.
We were also told that we would no longer fill out any forms unless they are requested by someone. It seems that we had over 1,300 forms that were being filled out at the plant and most of them were never being used for anything, so, unless someone requested a form, we wouldn’t just fill them out for the sake of filling them out. This was actually a good idea. I know we filled out forms in triplicate each week when we did transformer and substation inspections. Most of those were never looked at, I’m sure.
It turned out later that we needed only about 400 of the 1300 forms our plant was churning out each month.
We were told we wouldn’t be doing Substation inspections. That was not our responsibility. It would be done by the Transmission and Distribution division instead. I was beginning to see how management was trying to figure out how 7 electricians were going to “work harder”. The answer at the moment was that we were going to do less. The purpose of the Substation and Transformer checks each week was to look for problems while they were minor instead of waiting for a catastrophe to happen.
We were told that we were not going to “Gold Plate” our work. We were going to just do what it took to complete the task without worrying about polishing it up to make it “perfect” (which is what real Power Plant Men do). Instead we were going to “Farm Fix it”. I’ll go more into this subject with a separate post.
We were then told that we would no longer have an Electric Shop and an Instrument and Controls shop. We would from then on all meet in the Mechanical Maintenance shop. We were not supposed to go to the Electric Shop or the Instrument and Controls shops for breaks because we were all going to be cross-functional. We are all Maintenance now. No longer specialized (sort of).
We were going to have four Maintenance teams. Each one will have mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians and Instrument and controls people. Each member on each team would learn to do each other’s jobs to a degree.
An electrician will learn how to tack weld. A mechanic will learn how to run conduit and pull wire. An instrument and controls person will learn how to use the lathe. We would each learn enough about each job in order to perform minor tasks in each area without having to call the expert in that skill.
When the meeting was over, we each met with our own foremen. Alan Kramer was my new foreman. He used to be a foreman in the Instrument and Controls shop.
It became apparent that even though Jasper had come across as if everything had already been decided and that this was the way it was going to be, things hadn’t really been ironed out yet. Actually, this was just a first pass. The main goal was for us to figure out how to get all the work done that needed to be done. I was still an electrician and I was still responsible for working on electrical jobs.
One really good part of the new situation was that I was now on the same team as Charles Foster. We had always been very good friends, but I hadn’t worked on the same team as Charles since my first year as an electrician in 1984, ten years earlier when he was my first foreman in the electric shop (See the post: “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“). We were the two electricians on Alan Kramer’s team.
Besides the fact that everyone was very bitter over the despicable treatment of our fellow Power Plant Men that were laid off the previous Friday (see the post: “Power Plant Downsizing Disaster and the Left Behinds“), we knew that we had to figure out how to make this new arrangement work. We knew our upper management was using the old tyrannical style of management, but we also knew that at this point, they needed every one of us. They couldn’t go around firing us just because we spoke our mind (which was good for me, because, I was still in the process of learning how to keep my mouth shut when that was the most beneficial course of action).
As Dysfunctional as our upper management seemed to be at the moment, our new teams embraced the idea of our new Cross-Functional teams with some minor changes. First, we still needed to see ourselves as electricians, instrument and controls, machinists, welders and mechanics. We each had our own “certifications” and expertise that only a person with that trade could perform.
Charles and I would still go to the electric shop in the morning before work began, and during lunch and breaks. Our electric equipment to perform our job was there, and we still needed to maintain a stock of electric supplies. The same was true for the Instrument and Controls crew members.
Even today, after having been gone from the Power Plant for 13 1/2 years, the electric shop office phone still has my voice on the voice mail message. I know, because a couple of years ago, when it was accidentally erased, Tim Foster (Charles Foster’s son), asked me to record a new message so they could put it back on the phone. I considered that a great honor to be asked by True Power Plant Men to record their voice mail message on the electric shop phone. The Phone number by the way is: (405) 553-29??. Oh. I can’t remember the last two digits. 🙂
Once the kinks were worked out of the cross-functional team structure, it worked really well. I just kept thinking…. Boy, if we only had a group of supportive upper management that put their plant first over their own personal power needs, this would be great. The True Power Plant Men figured out how to work around them, so that in spite of the obstacles, within about 4 years, we had hit our stride.
Let me give you an example of how well the cross-functional teams worked compared to the old conventional way we used to work. I will start by describing how we used to do things…. Let’s say that a pump breaks down at the coal yard…
— start here —
An operator creates the Maintenance Order (M.O.). It is eventually assigned to a crew of mechanics. (start the clock here). When they have time, they go to the coal yard to look over the problem. Yep. The pump is not working. They will have to take it back to the shop to fix it.
A Maintenance Order is created for the electricians to unwire the motor. The electricians receive the maintenance order and prioritize it. They finally assign it to a team to go work on it. Say, in one week from the time they received the M.O. The electrician goes to the control room to request a clearance on the pump. The next day the electrician unwires the motor. They complete the maintenance order at the end of the day and send it back up to the A Foreman.
The completed electric maintenance order is sent back to the mechanics letting them know that the motor for the pump has been unwired. When they receive it, a couple of days later, they schedule some time that week to go work on the pump. At that time, they bring the motor to the electric shop so that it can be worked on at the same time.
The motor and the pump is worked on some time during the next week.
A machinist is needed to re-sleeve a bearing housing on either the motor or the pump or both. So, an M.O. is created for the machinist to work on creating a sleeve in an end bell of the motor or the pump.
The electricians inform the mechanics when the motor is ready. When they are done with the pump, and they have put it back in place, they put the motor back. Then they create an M.O. for the Machinist to line up the motor and the pump before the coupling is installed.
The Machinists prioritize their work and at some point, let’s say a couple of days, they make it up to the motor and work on aligning the pump and the motor.
During the re-installation, it is decided that a bracket that has worn out needs to be welded back. So, an M.O. is created for the welders to replace the bracket before the motor can be rewired.
The welders prioritize their work, and in a week (or two) they finally have time to go weld the bracket.
They return their M.O. completed to the mechanics who then tell the electricians that they can re-wire the motor.
The electricians prioritize their work and when they have time to go re-wire the motor, they wire it up. After wiring it, they go to the control room to have the operators help them bump test the motor to make sure it runs in the right direction. An entire day goes by until the electrician receives a call saying that the operator is ready to bump test the motor. The electrician and/or mechanic meets the operator at the pump to bump test the motor. Once this test is performed, the mechanic re-couples the motor.
The electrician then removes his clearance on the pump and it is put back into service. The M.O.s are completed.
— End here. The time it took to repair the pump and put it back in service would commonly take one month —
Now see what happens when you have a cross-functional team working on it….(and be amazed).
— Start here —
The maintenance team receives a ticket (M.O.) from the planner that a pump is broken at the coal yard. A mechanic goes and looks at it and determines it needs to be repaired. He calls his Electrician Teammate and tells him that the motor needs to be unwired in order to fix the pump. The electrician goes to the control room and takes a clearance on the pump.
The electrician then goes to the switchgear and waits for the operator to place the clearance. When that is completed, the electrician goes to the pump and unwires the motor. While there, he helps the mechanic pull the motor and put it aside. The electrician determines there if the motor needs to be worked on. If possible, it is repaired in place, or the motor is brought to the electric shop at the same time as the pump. It is determined that the pump needs to be worked on, so they work together to bring it to the shop where the mechanics work on the pump. Any machinist work is done at that time.
When the pump is being put back in place, the bracket is found broken, so they call the welder on their team who comes up and welds it back on. The machinist comes with the electrician and the mechanic to align the motor. The operators are called to bump test the motor. As soon as the test is over, the coupling is installed. The clearance is removed and the pump is put back in place.
— End here. The pump can now be repaired within one week instead of four weeks. Often the pump can be repaired in days instead of weeks. —
The reason why the cross-functional teams worked so well is that we all had the same priority. We all had the same job and we had all the skills on our team to do all the work. This was a fantastic change from working in silos.
This was “Working Smarter”, not “Working Harder”. Ever since that day when we first learned that we had to “Work Harder” I always cringe when I hear that phrase. To me, “Working Harder” means, “Working Dumber”. Today I am a big advocate of Cross-Functional Teams. I have seen them work successfully. There was only one catch which I will talk about later. This worked beautifully, but keep in mind… We had cross-functional teams made of the best Power Plant Men on the planet! So, I may have a lopsided view of how successful they really work in the general public.