I’m not exactly sure why, but after having written 144 Power Plant Stories about the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I have yet to really tell you about one of the most important Power Plant Men during my 20 year stay at the Power Plant Palace. I have mentioned many times that he was my carpooling buddy. I have called him my Power Plant Brother. I have explained many of his characteristics in other posts, but I have never really formally introduced you to the only person that would answer the Walkie Talkie radio and the gray phone with “Hubbard Here!”
There are a couple of reasons why I have waited until now I suppose. One of the reasons is that I have two very terrific stories about Scott and me that I will be telling next year, as they took place after the 1994 downsizing, which I will be covering next year. The other reason is that I wasn’t sure exactly how to tell you that at one point in my extraordinary career at the Power Plant Palace, I really didn’t have the warm-and-fuzzies for Scott Hubbard at all. In fact, the thought of Scott Hubbard to me early in my career as an electrician was rather a sour one.
Let me explain…. I wrote a post August, 2012 that explained that while I was on the labor crew the Power Plant started up a new crew called “Testing” (See the post: “Take a Note Jan” said the Supervisor of Power Plant Production). A rule (from somewhere…. we were told Corporate Headquarters) had been made that you had to have a college degree in order to even apply for the job. Two of us on Labor Crew had college degrees, and our A foremen asked us to apply for the jobs. When we did, we were told that there was a new rule. No one that already worked for the Electric Company could be considered for the new jobs. The above post explains this and what followed, so I won’t go into anymore detail about that.
When the team was formed, new employees were seen following around their new foreman, Keith Hodges (who is currently the Plant Manager of the same plant – I originally wrote this post in 2014).
Ok. While I’m on the subject of family pictures of the 1983 testing team’s new foreman, here is a more recent picture:
When we were on the labor crew and we would be driving down to the plant from our coal yard home to go do coal cleanup in the conveyor system, we would watch a group of about 10 people following Keith like quail following the mother hen around the yard learning all about their new home at the Power Plant. — I’ll have to admit that we were jealous. We knew all about the plant already, but we thought we had been judged, “Not Good Enough” to be on the testing team.
One of those guys on the new testing team was Scott Hubbard. Along with him were other long time Power Plant men like, Greg Davidson, Tony Mena, Richard Allen, Doug Black and Rich Litzer. Those old testers reading this post will have to remind me of others.
I joined the electric shop in 1983 a few months after the testing team had been formed, and I really would have rather been an electrician than on the testing team anyway, it was just the principle of the thing that had upset us, so I was still carrying that feeling around with me. So much so, that when the first downsizing in the company’s history hit us in 1988, and we learned that Scott Hubbard was going to come to the Electric Shop during the reorganization to fill Arthur Hammond’s place, who had taken the incentive package to leave (See the post “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“), my first reaction was “Oh No!”
Diane Brien, my coworker (otherwise known as “my bucket buddy”) had told me that she had heard that Scott Hubbard was going to join our team to take Art’s place. When I looked disappointed, she asked me what was the problem.
After thinking about it for a moment, I said, “I don’t know. There’s just something that bugs me about Scott Hubbard”. — I knew what it was. I had just been angry about the whole thing that happened 5 years earlier, and I was still carrying that feeling around with me. I guess I hadn’t realized it until then. I also thought at the time that no one could really replace my dear friend Arthur Hammond who had abandoned the illustrious Power Plant Life to go try something else.
Anyway, Scott Hubbard came to our crew in 1988 and right away he was working with Ben Davis, so I didn’t see to much of him for a while as they were working a lot at a new Co-Gen plant at the Conoco (Continental) oil refinery in Ponca City. So, my bucket buddy, Dee and I carried on as if nothing had changed. That was until about 9 months later…. When I moved from Ponca City to Stillwater.
I had been living in Ponca City since a few months after I had been married until the spring of 1989. Then we moved to Stillwater. I had to move us on a Friday night out of the little run down house we were living in on 2nd Street in Ponca City to a much better house on 6th Avenue in Stillwater.
I felt like the Jeffersons when I moved from a Street to an Avenue!
I am mentioning the Friday night on May 5, 1989 because that was the day that I moved all our possessions out of the little junky house in Ponca City to Stillwater. My wife was out of town visiting her sister in Saint Louis, and I was not able to move all of our belongings in my 1982 Honda Civic, as the glove compartment was too small for the mattress:
I figured I was going to rent a U-Haul truck, load it up with all our possessions and drive the 45 miles to Stillwater. My only problem was figuring out how I was going to transport my car. While trying to figure it out, Terry Blevins and Dick Dale offered to not only help me with that, but they would help me move everything. Terry had an open trailer that he brought over and Dick Dale loaded his SUV with the rest of the stuff. With the one trailer, the SUV and my 1982 Honda Civic, all our possessions were able to be moved in one trip. — I didn’t own a lot of furniture. It consisted of one sofa, one 27 inch TV, One Kitchen Table a bed and a washer and dryer and boxes full of a bunch of junk like clothes, odds and ends and papers. — Oh. And I had a computer.
Once I was safely moved to Stillwater that night by my two friends, (who, had to drive back to Ponca City around 2:00 am after working all that Friday), my wife and I began our second three years of marriage living in a house on the busiest street in the bustling town of Stillwater, 6th Avenue. Otherwise known as Hwy 51. The best part of this move was that we lived across the street from a Braum’s. They make the best Ice Cream and Hamburgers in the state of Oklahoma! (or… well, they used to back then. I have heard rumors lately they have gone downhill – 2019 comment).
I keep mentioning that I’m mentioning this because of this reason or that, but it all boils down to how Scott Hubbard and I really became very good friends. You see…. Scott lived just south of Stillwater, and so, he had a pretty good drive to work each day. Now that I lived in Stillwater, and we were on the same crew in the electric shop, it only made sense that we should start carpooling with each other. So, we did.
Throughout the years that we carpooled, we also carpooled with Toby O’Brien and Fred Turner. I have talked some about Toby in previous posts, but I don’t believe I’ve mentioned Fred very often. He worked in the Instrument and Controls department, and is an avid hunter just like Scott. Scott and Fred had been friends long before I entered the scene and they would spend a lot of time talking about their preparations for the hunting season, then once the hunting season began, I would hear play-by-play accounts about sitting in dear stands waiting quietly, and listening to the sounds of approaching deer. I would hear about shots being fired, targets missed, prey successfully bagged, dressed and butchered. I would even be given samples of Deer Jerky.
I myself was not a hunter, but I think I could write a rudimentary “Hunter’s Survival Guide” just by absorbing all that knowledge on the way to work in the morning and again on the way home.
The thing I liked most about Scott Hubbard was that he really enjoyed life. There are those people that go around finding things to grumble about all the time, and then there are people like Scott Hubbard. He generally found the good in just about anything that we encountered. It rubbed off on the rest of the crew and it made us all better in the long run. I don’t think anyone could work around Scott Hubbard for very long and remain a cynical old coot no matter how hard they tried (unless your name was the same as your initials and it was spelled OD).
Scott Hubbard and I eventually started working together more and more until we were like two peas in a pod. Especially during outages and call outs in the middle of the night. I think the operators were used to seeing us working together so much that in the middle of the night when they needed to call out one of us, they just automatically called us both. So, we would meet at our usual carpooling spot and head out to the plant.
As I mentioned at the top of this post, I have two very good stories about Scott and myself. One of those has to do with a time when we were called out in the middle of the night to perform a special task. I won’t describe it now, so, I’ll tell a short story about one Saturday when we were called out on a Saturday to be on standby to do some switching in the Substation.
I believe one of the units was being brought back online, and Scott and I were at the plant waiting for the boiler and the Turbine to come up to speed. Things were progressing slower than anticipated, so we had to wait around for a while. This was about the time that the Soviet Union fell in 1991. We had been following this closely as new things were being learned each day about how life in Russia really was. I had a copy of the Wall Street Journal with me and as we sat in a pickup truck slowly driving around the wildlife preserve known as “The Power Plant”, I read an article about Life in the former Soviet Union.
The article was telling a story about how the U.S. had sent a bunch of food aid to Russia to help them out with their transition from slavery to freedom. The United States had sent Can Goods to Russia not realizing that they had yet to invent the can opener. What a paradigm shift. Thinking about how backward the “Other Super Power” was made our life at the “Super Power Plant” seem a lot sweeter. We even had military vets who still carried around their can openers on their key chains. I think they called them “P 38’s”
The conditions in Russia at the time reminded me of the beginning sentence of the classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities”, “Call me Ismael”….. Oh wait. That’s “Moby Dick”. No. I meant to say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times!” — It’s funny how you remember certain moments in Power Plant history just like it was yesterday, and other memories are much more foggy. For instance, I don’t even remember the time when we… um…. oh well…..
The first thing that comes to the mind of any of the Power Plant Men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Centeral Oklahoma when you mention Scott Hubbards name, is how Scott answers the radio when he is paged. He always replied with a cheerful “Hubbard Here!” After doing this for so long, that just about became his nickname. “Hubbard Here!” The latest picture I have of Scott Hubbard was during Alan Kramer’s retirement party at the plant a few years ago. I’m sure you can spot him. He’s the one with the “Hubbard Here smile!
I will leave you with the official Power Plant Picture. Here is a picture of Scott Hubbard in a rare moment of looking serious:
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. After all, he never really took a course in motivational speaking.
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.
I don’t know if they called them “Black Ops” in 1994, but when the control room operator David Evans answered the phone that day in October, I don’t think he ever expected to have the person on the other end of the line tell him that a military special forces unit was going to stage a mock raid on the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma some time that night. I’m sure Jack Maloy, the shift supervisor, was equally surprised when David told him about the phone call. I heard later that Jack was pretty upset to find out that a military force was going to be attacking our plant in the middle of the night without his permission!
The first we heard about the call was when Jasper Christensen called a meeting of the entire maintenance department on the spur of the moment in the main break room. He told us about the phone call. He said we didn’t have any more information than that. Though the maintenance department shouldn’t be working that night, Jasper said that just in case we were called out for something, we should know that a group of commandos were going to be performing some sort of mock raid on our plant. If we encountered any soldiers sneaking around the plant in the middle of the night in full military gear, not to be alarmed. Just go on doing what you’re doing and don’t bother them.
Now that it is 21 years later (well, almost) the truth can finally come out…. Isn’t that how it goes? When we are sworn to secrecy, isn’t it 21 years before we can finally speak out? (That’s what Shadow Warriors always told me). I don’t remember us taking an oath or anything, but that’s the way it is with Power Plant Men. They just assume that if the military is staging a mock raid on our plant, it is a matter of national security. It seemed as if our plant sort of matched the layout of a power plant somewhere in Central America where the real raid was going to take place.
The main difference between our Power Plant and the one in Honduras, or wherever it was, is that our plant had recently gone through a downsizing. So, our operators at night now had to perform the duties that had before been done by the labor crew. They had to do coal cleanup throughout the conveyor system.
This meant that if one of our auxiliary operators happened to run across someone dressed in the outfit above, they would have naturally handed him either a water hose or a shovel and pointed to the nearest conveyor and said something like, “I’ll start on this end, and you can start over there.” After all. He would already be wearing his respirator.
That day on the way home, Scott Hubbard and I discussed the significance of such a raid on our Power Plant. A year and a half earlier, Janet Reno had really messed up the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas when it burned down and burned everyone to death including women and children. So, it would be good to go into a situation like this more prepared.
I had often thought about the steps that could covertly be taken to single-handed destroy the power plant without using any kind of explosives. Those who understood how all the systems worked together could do it if they really wanted to. Of course, that was just how I might occupy my mind when I was doing a repetitive job, like sweeping out the main switchgear. What better place for those thoughts to drift into your mind.
Actually, now that I think about it, instead of sending in the Special Forces, just send in a few Plant Operators, Electricians and Instrument and Controls guys and they could totally destroy the plant in a matter of hours if that was their intent. The same thing could be said about putting a few incompetent people in upper management even if it isn’t their intent, only it takes longer than a couple of hours to destroy the plant in that case.
The next morning when we arrived at the plant, our foreman Alan Kramer told us the stories about the raid that happened the night before. This is what I can remember about it (if any Power Plant Men want to correct me, or add some more stories, please do in the comments below).
First he said that it appeared as if the commandos had landed in some kind of stealth helicopter out on the north side of the intake because later when the power plant men had investigated the site they could see where two wheels on the helicopter had left an impression in the mud. Dan Landes had been keeping a lookout from the top of the Unit 1 boiler, and he thought for a moment that he saw the flash of a red light…. which… thinking about it now, could have been one of those laser sites taking aim at him and mock assassinating him by shooting him in the eye from about 1/2 mile. You know how good American Snipers can be (my plug for the new movie). Good thing he was wearing his auto-tinting safety glasses.
We also heard that one of the operators, Maybe Charles Peavler (Charles is standing next to Dan wearing the pink shirt and carrying something in his lower lip) had stepped out of the office elevator on the ground floor only to come face-to-face with a soldier. When the soldier was seen by the operator, he just turned around and walked out of the door… he evidently was considered a casualty if he was seen by anyone. Either that, or he had to go do coal cleanup the rest of the night.
I think it was Jeff Meyers (front row, left in the picture above) who told us later that the Special Ops forces had left a present for the operators on the Turbine-Generator Room floor. Tracked across the clean shiny red T-G floor were muddy boot prints leading from the Unit 1 boiler entrance to the door to the control room. The tracks ended at the control room door.
The tracks were extra muddy as if someone had intentionally wanted us to see that someone had walked right up to the control room door. The tracks did not lead away from the door. They just ended right there.
So, we did have proof that the commandos had actually visited our plant that night, only because one of the operators had come face-to-face with one in the main lobby. If that hadn’t happened, then they would have come and gone and we would have been none-the-wiser… other than wondering about the strange muddy footprints and the impression left in the mud by the stealth helicopter.
I suppose it was easy for the Power Plant operators to ignore the commandos since for the most part, they never saw them coming or going. The Power Plant Men were happy to play their part in the mock raid. Of all that has been asked of these Power Plant Men over the years, this was one of the more “unique” events. How many Power Plant Men across the country can say that they took part in a Special Ops Commando Raid on their Power Plant?
All I can say is that the commandos sure picked a great bunch of Power Plant Men and Women to attack. We were all honored (even those of us who were at home in bed asleep at the time) to be able to help out the military any way we could.
The Electric Shop had tried for three years to win the Safety Slogan of the Year award. Not because we thought we were safer than any of the other teams at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, but because we really liked pizza (see the post: “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“) . When the plant was downsized in 1994, the electric shop no longer existed as it had before. We had become cross-functional teams (See the post: “Crossfunctional Power Plant Dysfunction“). It looked as if our dream of winning the Power Plant Safety Pizza was no longer in our grasp.
My carpooling buddy, Toby O’Brien had moved from our plant as a Plant Engineer to the Safety Department in Oklahoma City. He was working with Julia Bevers and Chris McAlister. Chris had also moved from our plant as a labor crew hand to the Safety Department (This was a great opportunity for Chris!).
Bill Green our new plant manager introduced a jar of beads during his first safety meeting. We each picked a bead randomly from the jar through a small hole in the top. Then Bill Green pointed out that the color of bead represented the result of doing something unsafe.
The green color meant that nothing happened. The other colors reach represented a different type of accident that occurred. The ratio of beads in the jar represented the likelihood of each type of accident happening. There was one black bead in the jar. That meant that you died when you did something unsafe. I used to keep the number of each color of marble in my wallet, but that piece of paper disintegrated over the years.
The types of accidents were something like: First Aid Case, Reportable Accident, Lost Work Day Accident, Hospitalized, and Death.
A couple of months after the downsizing, the Safety department announced that they were going to have a Safety contest. The contest would be held at each plant and it involved each of the supervisor’s computers. The prize for the contest was that the winning team would be able to eat a free lunch with complements from the safety team.
Great! Shortly after the electric shop is busted up and we were scattered to the wind, we finally had one last chance to win the ever illusive Power Plant Safety Pizza! Only, how were we going to do it? I was working on Alan Kramer’s team. My old foreman Andy Tubbs (not old in the sense that he was an old man… old in that he was my former foreman) was now one of the other supervisors with only my old bucket buddy (you know what I mean… not “old” old) Diana Brien as the electrician on his team.
Before I go further to explain my conflict during this contest, let me explain how the contest worked.
The supervisors had new computers that ran using Windows 3.1. Back then, the screensaver on the computer didn’t just shut down the monitor like most of them do today. Instead, they showed some kind of message, or picture or something animated that kept moving around so that your monitor didn’t get burned in with an image that was constantly on your screen, such as your wallpaper and your icons.
The Safety Department said that each team should come up with some way to display the idea of “Safety” using a screensaver. They suggested using the screensaver that let you type in a message that would scroll across the screen when the screensaver was turned on. That was a simple built-in screensaver that came with Windows 3.1.
Then the Safety Department would come to the plant on a particular day and judge each of the computer’s screensaver and announce the winner. Sounds simple enough.
We first heard about the Safety Slogan Screensaver contest in our Monday Morning Meeting with our team. Alan Kramer said we should come up with a good slogan that we could put on our scrolling message screensaver. I kept my mouth shut at the time, because I didn’t know exactly how to proceed. I was having a feeling of mixed loyalty since my old Electric Shop Team with Andy Tubbs as our foreman had written over 300 safety slogans and had purposely been blocked from winning the Prized Pizza each year.
Not long after the morning meeting, Andy Tubbs came up to me in the Electric Shop and said, “We have to win this contest! That Pizza should be ours! I need you to come up with the best screensaver you can that will blow the others away.” I gave him my usual answer when Andy asked me to do something (even when he was no longer my foreman). I said, “Ok, I’ll see what I can do.”
I went down our list of safety slogans looking for the best slogan I could find. Here are a few of them:
“Having an accident is never convenient, So always make Safety a key ingredient.”
“Take the time to do it right, Use your goggles, save your sight.”
“To take the lead in the ‘Safety Race’, You must pay attention to your work place.”
“Unsafe conditions can be resolved, If we all work together and get involved.”
After thumbing through the entire list, I knew we really needed something else. So, I began to think of alternate screen savers. One caught my attention. It was called “Spotlight”. It came with the “After Dark 2.0 Screensavers” (best known for the “Flying Toaster” screensaver). I had found a freeware version that did the same thing. You can see how the spotlight works at 7:15 on the video below (just slide the time bar over to 7:15):
For those who can’t view YouTube videos directly through the above picture, here is the direct link: “After Dark Screensavers“.
The spotlight screensaver basically turns your screen dark, then has a circle (or spotlight) where you can see the background screen behind it. It roams around on your desktop showing only that portion of your wallpaper at a time. You can adjust the size of the circle and the speed that it moves around the screen.
Taking our safety slogans, I began creating a wallpaper for the computer screen by filling it with little one liner safety slogans. I also added yellow flags to the wallpaper because that was a symbol for safety at our plant (for more information why see the post: “Power Plant Imps and Accident Apes“).
With the help of Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard (both Power Plant electricians), when I was finished the wallpaper looked like this:
I printed this out in black and white, but the slogans were written in different colors.
I arranged Andy’s icons on his desktop so they were around the edge of the screen. That way they didn’t cover up the safety slogans. I set the speed of the spotlight to very slow and and the size of the spotlight so that it was just big enough to see each safety slogan. The effect worked out real well. Imagine a dark screen with a spotlight moving randomly around the screen exposing each safety slogan (and yellow flag… don’t forget about those) as it went.
Besides the electricians, no one else knew that I was working on this for Andy. As far as Alan Kramer knew, I was on his side in this contest. I even kept Toby O’Brien in the dark about it, because I knew that he was going to be one of the judges and even though he knew how much winning the Safety Pizza meant to me. I didn’t want to influence his decision. Besides, this Safety Screensaver was going to win. It was the coolest screensaver around. The trick was to keep it hidden from the other teams until it was time for the Safety Department to judge it.
I had the impression from Toby that he had purposely talked the Safety Department into this contest to give me a chance to win the Safety Pizza at our plant. Scott Hubbard and I had carpooled with Toby throughout the years we were trying to win that pizza, and I think he just felt our pain enough that when he was in the position, he was trying to pay us back for our effort.
The screensaver judging was done during the morning, and was going to be announced that afternoon during the monthly safety meeting. A short time before the Safety Meeting began, Toby O’Brien came up to me and in an apologetic manner told me that the safety slogan winner probably wasn’t going to be who I thought it was. I figured that was because he thought I was hoping Alan Kramer’s team was going to win since that was my team. I just smiled back and told him that it was all right.
It was announced during the safety meeting that Andy Tubbs’ team won the contest, and all the electricians were happy. I think it was at that point that Alan Kramer realized that I had helped Andy with his screensaver. He looked at me as if I had betrayed him. I said something like, “Andy Tubbs has been trying to win a safety contest for years. It’s about time.”
The following week, when Andy’s team was given their prize for winning the safety screensaver contest, he brought two pizzas to the electric shop and we all sat around the table relishing in the pepperonis. We had finally received our Power Plant Safety Pizza! Even though I really like pizza anytime, the pizza that day tasted especially good.
I don’t know if we ever told Toby that when Andy Tubbs team won, we all won. Maybe some day he will read this story and know…. “The Rest of the Story”.
In case you can’t read all the little safety slogans on the wallpaper, here is a list of them:
Safety First. Be Safe. Safety begins here. Watch your step. Check your boundaries. Have Good Posture. Haste makes waste. Bend your knees. Avoid Shortcuts. Be Safe or Be Gone. Know your chemicals. Check O2 before Entry. Use Safety Guards. Know your limit. Report Spills. Safety is job #1. Beware of Pinch Points. Buckle up. Safety is no accident. Impatience kills. Strive to Survive. Protect your hearing. Use the right tool. Keep your back straight. Drive friendly. Keep Aisles clear. Don’t take chances. Prevention is the cure. Safety is your job. Communicate with others. Always tie off. Don’t cut corners. Wear your glasses. Act safe. Barricade Hazards. Use your respirator. Be responsible. Lock it out. Plug your ears. Stay fit. Safety never hurts. Don’t block exits. Be aware of your surroundings. Safety is top priority. Don’t be careless. Pick up your trash. Think Ahead. Slippery When Wet. Think Safety. Don’t hurry. Report Hazards. Wear your gloves. Save your eyes. No Running. Wear your Safety Belt. Plan Ahead. Avoid Backing. Use your Safety Sense. Good Housekeeping. Get Help. Keep Cylinders Chained. Protect your hands. Don’t improvise. Beware of hazards. Get the Safety Habit. Be Prepared. Gear up for Safety. Use your PPE. Do not litter. Zero Accidents. Don’t be a Bead (a reference to Bill Green’s jar of beads). Eat Right. Keep Floors clean. Watch out. Safety Pays. Drive Safely. Take Safety Home. Know Safety, use Safety. Read the MSDS. Cotton Clothes Prevents Burns. Follow the rules. Wear your hard hat. Watch out for your buddy. Test your Confined space. Remember the Yellow Flag. Safe Mind, Sound Body. Clean up your spills. Don’t take risks. Beware of Ice. Watch out for the other guy. Obey the rules. Don’t tailgate. Circle for safety. Safety Me, Safety You. Protect your Toes. Knowing is not enough. When in doubt, Check it out. Falls can kill. Be Alert! Avoid slick spots. Safety is a team event. Almost is not enough. Avoid the Noise. Give Safety your all. And finally… This Space for Rent.
We were told at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that we were going to have to stop doing the excellent job we were used to doing. We no longer had time to make everything perfect. We just had to patch things together enough so that it was fixed and leave it at that. Jasper Christensen told us that we were going to have to “Farm Fix” things and work harder because we now only had half the employees.
Two things bothered me right away….
First, “Work Harder.” What exactly does that mean? How does one work harder? When I pick up my tool bucket to go work on a job, should I put some extra bricks in it so that it is harder to carry? What then? Think about it… Shouldn’t we be working “Smarter” instead of “Harder”? We were all hard workers (if that means, spending a good 8 hour day doing your job). Any slackers were laid off 7 years earlier.
When I heard “Farm Fixing” I took offense to the reference. Jasper had mentioned using baling wire to hold something up instead of taking the time to make our jobs look pretty. As if baling wire was somehow synonymous with “Farm Fixing”. My grandfather was a farmer…. I’ll talk about that in a bit….
Jasper also informed us that we were no longer stuck doing only our own trade. So, an electrician should expect to help out as a mechanic or a welder as long as it wasn’t too involved. Certain welding jobs, for instance, require a certified welder. If the job was just to tack weld up a bracket somewhere, then I, as an electrician, could wheel a welding machine over there and weld it up.
After that initial meeting after we had been downsized to pint-sized, we met with our own teams. Alan Kramer was my new foreman. He encouraged us to learn the different skills from our teammates.
I asked Ed Shiever to teach me how to weld. After about an hour, I decided I wasn’t too interested in melting metal using electricity. I would leave it to the experts. I was left with a sunburned chest, as I usually wore a V-Neck Tee Shirt in the summer.
Jody Morse was a mechanic on our team, who had been a friend of mine since I was a janitor. We had been on the labor crew together. He asked me if he could do some electrical work with me. He thought it would be a useful skill to learn. I happily agreed to let him work alongside me running conduit and pulling wire around the precipitator hoppers.
It wouldn’t include working on any circuits where he might accidentally come into contact with anything live. So, I thought this was a good starting point. That was one of the first skills I learned as an electrician-in-training when I was taught by Gene Roget, a master of conduit bending.
I showed Jody how to bend the conduit and have it end up being the right length with the curves in the right place (which is a little tricky at first). Then I showed Jody where the conduit needed to go, and where the wire needed to end up. He said he wanted to do this all by himself, so I left him to it and left to do something else.
A little while later, Jody came back and said he had a slight problem. He had cut the cable just a little bit too short (Yeah. I had done that myself, see the post: “When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough“). I looked at the problem with him, and he was about six inches too short.
Jody looked the job over and decided he had two options. Pull some new longer cable, or try to make the existing cable work.He figured out that if he cut off 6 inches of the conduit, and sort of bent it out so that it was no longer exactly at 90 degrees, then it would still reach where it needed to go, only the conduit wouldn’t look so pretty because the conduit would appear a little cockeyed. We figured this would be all right because Jasper had just finished telling us that we needed to make things not so pretty anymore. Jody finished the job, and filled out the Maintenance Order indicating that the job was done.
The cable and conduit job had been requested by Ron Madron, one of the Instrument and Controls guys on our team. When he went out and looked at the conduit, let’s just say that he wasn’t too impressed. He went to Alan Kramer and complained that the conduit job was disgraceful. I don’t remember his exact words, but when I heard about it, it sounded to me like he said “It was an abomination to all things electrical”.
I had always taken pride in my work, and doing a “sloppy” job was not normal for me. I didn’t want Jody to feel bad about this because he was pretty proud of having completed the job all by himself without my help. So I went and had a one-on-one with Ron and explained the situation to him. I also told him that the next time he has problem with something I did, come directly and talk to me about it instead of our foreman. We’re all on the same team now.
I think once he realized the situation, he was more receptive. Jody and I did go back out there and fix the issue by running a new cable that was long enough, with a new piece of conduit that was installed with the best of care so that it looked pretty. — None of us informed Jasper that behind his back we were still performing our jobs with great care and precision.
The more I thought about the idea of “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management” and how it was being applied at our plant, after about a year, I wrote a letter to the Superintendent over all the Power Plants, Jack Coffman.
Here is the letter I wrote (It was titled “Farm Fixing and Risk Management” — appropriate, don’t you think?):
Dear Jack Coffman,
I went through the Root Learning Class on Friday, September 6. After the class our table remained to discuss with Bruce Scambler the situation that exists at the power plants concerning the way we maintain our equipment. We attempted to discuss our concerns with our facilitator, however, the canyon depicted in the first visual became more and more evident the further we discussed it.
My two concerns are the terms “Farm Fixing” and “Risk Management”. These are two good processes which I believe must be employed if we are to compete in an open market. I do believe, however, that our management has misunderstood their true meaning and has turned them into catch phrases that are something totally different than they were originally intended.
I come from a family of farmers. My father and grandfather were farmers. I was concerned about our use of the term “Farm-fixed”, so I discussed the way we were using it in our company with my father and I have confirmed my understanding of the term.
My grandfather as a farmer was a Welder, a Blacksmith, a Carpenter, and an Engine Mechanic. When a piece of machinery broke down while he was out harvesting or plowing a field, it is true that baling wire and a quick fix was needed to continue the work for the day. There is a small window of opportunity when harvesting and the equipment had to be running during this time or the farmer’s livelihood was at stake.
That evening, however, the piece that broke was reworked and re-machined until it was better than the original store bought item. Thus guaranteeing that it wouldn’t break down the following day. If the repairs took all night to make it right, they would stay up all night repairing it correctly. It was vital to their livelihood to have their machinery running as well as possible.
A Ford Tractor soon became my grandfather’s tractor as the original factory parts were replaced with more sturdy parts. It wasn’t repainted (gold-plated), because they weren’t planning on selling their equipment. The tractors and plows would last years longer than originally designed. All this was before farming became a subsidized industry.
We need to “Farm-Fix” our equipment. Our management however, focuses on the use of baling wire during an emergency and replaces the true meaning of Farm-Fixing with the meaning of “Jerry-Rigging”. Which is merely a temporary fix while farming and is NOT farm-fixing something. We have been maintaining our plant with quick fixes and have not been farm-fixing them. If so, our equipment would be more reliable, and would last longer than originally intended.
Risk Management is another area that has been misunderstood by our management. They have gone to school and have been trained in Risk Management. I don’t believe they are using their tools in the way that they were taught. They have taken the underlying idea that we may not need to make a change or repair a certain piece of equipment at this particular time and have made it the center of their idea of Risk Management. Risk Management is more than that. It is weighing the consequences of both actions against the cost and making an informed decision to determine the timing of maintenance.
Risk Management at our plant has become nothing more than speculation, or what I call “Wish Management”. The decision is often made based on the immediate cost and downtime to delay maintenance without properly identifying the possible damage that could occur and the cost of that scenario.
The phrase “It’s run that way this long, it will probably be all right” is used to justify not repairing the equipment. No real analysis is done. Then we cross our fingers and “Wish” that it will continue running forever.
I believe in the concepts of Risk Management and Farm-fixing. I think they are processes that should be used in our company to achieve and maintain “Best-In-Class”. I am concerned, however, that if we continue on the course that we are on where “Wishing” and “Jerry-rigging” are our processes, it will only be a matter of time before our workers get killed and our plants melt down around us.
— End of the letter. See? I was always trying to stir things up.
The first summer I worked at the Power Plant as a summer help, we had a couple of floor drain covers in the maintenance shop that were missing from the floor drains. Plywood had been used to cover the drains, which had been smashed down by the heavy equipment that traveled in and out of the shop. One day during lunch I wrote a Maintenance Order to have the floor drain covers replaced and placed it on Marlin McDaniel’s (the only A Foreman at the time) desk. I was only an 18 year old kid that was just learning my way around in the world and already stirring things up, but I figured this was an accident waiting to happen.
The very next day, a plant mechanic, Tom Dean stepped onto one of those floor drains while carrying a heavy ladder and seriously hurt his back. It was a life changing event for Tom that immediately changed his career. The next day, the drains had new covers. I talked about this in the post: “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One”
Approximately one year after I wrote the Farm-fixing and Risk Management letter to Jack Coffman, we had a major incident at the power plant that was directly caused by the decision not to replace a coupling when it was known to be faulty (risk management, they called it). It would have required extending an overhaul a day or two. Instead, after half of the T-G floor burned to the ground and the plant was offline for about 3 months. Millions of dollars of damage. That is a story for another post.
Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you. In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant. It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit. Others found it funny. Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed. One person was totally surprised by the response (me).
January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day. Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question. He said something like, “Kevin. Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?” I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.
Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves. So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer. When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”. The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday. He is 48 years old today. Please wish him a Happy Birthday. The Birthday Phantom.”
It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!” and the body of the email had the happy birthday song, “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear Wayne. Happy Birthday to you. The Birthday Phantom.
So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin. Did you do this?” What could I say? So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?” I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.
Alan said, “Well. I just had to ask.” I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face. Something like this:
You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email. Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails. It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost). Charles Foster was my witness.
What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City. I think it was Ed Mayberry. Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.
While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important. I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.
The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”. As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line. Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time. Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail. I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh. Nothing. Nothing at all.” Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.
I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question. I could tell he was upset with me. He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?” I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day. So both Charles and I looked confused.
I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private. Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire. Which I didn’t.
Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about. He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office. Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.
I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time. I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails. Alan accepted my explanation. Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.
So, fast forward to November 6, 1996. We were now using Outlook. That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.
I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day. I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”
Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person? Well. We don’t do anything now. Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”
After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born. I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that. So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.
It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer. Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.
The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day. If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.
The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list. We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things. If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.
Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day. If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on. If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.
There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it. First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct. So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.
Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997. So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff. This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.
As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been. Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.
For instance. A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom. David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom. I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?” David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?” Well. I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes. I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.” The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah. right).
Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails. Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.
Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from. Jim Cave told me that Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.
Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh! That’s a Wiley One!” I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).
I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee. Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-…. You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.
Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom. She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety. Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason. You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.
After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom. I told her I would look into it. I did look into it for about one second. Linda was turning 40 on Friday.
On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old. Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.
Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them. She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier. The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.
The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well. Yeah. The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day. Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29. In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.
Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“). Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.
The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor. She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29. She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it! Please wish her a Happy Birthday!” I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.
After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom. They were not able to find it. The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.
I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program. Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.
Power Plant Men cherish few things more than Friday afternoon when they head out to the parking lot and the weekend officially begins. Coolers full of ice, a quick trip to the convenience store for some beer and they are ready for the next two days. That’s why when a suggestion was made that the Power Plant Men might have to start working on Saturdays as well, the idea was not well received.
The Maintenance Department at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had downsized from 13 crews to 4 teams. We were struggling to figure out how to make that work. We had four teams and only seven electricians. Which meant that one team only had one electrician. Diane Brien was the lucky “one”. She was the only electrician on her team.
We were spread out so far already, how could we possibly cover an extra day of the week? Who (besides operators – who work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) would want to give up their Saturday to work straight time at the Power Plant. I mean…. we all loved our jobs (for the most part), but this was asking a lot.
We had learned from the last two downsizings and the the Quality Process that when the company hired consultants, things were going to change. We were convinced that consultants were hired to take the heat off of upper management. They could just say, “Well…. This is what the Consultants told us would work best, so we’re cutting our staff in half.”
So, when consultants were hired for over $100,000 to figure out how we could work an “alternate work schedule”, we were suspicious. Any of us could sit around and put two and two together to figure out a way to work alternate work schedules. This led us to believe that this was another attempt to force us into something by saying, “The Consultants….. (not us)….” Bringing to mind the phrase from Star Wars, Return of the Jedi; “Many Bothans Died for This Information.”
Picture this lady telling the Power Plant Men how they were going to work on Saturdays and they were going to like it. The phrase “T’ain’t No Way!” comes to mind. Here is how the meeting went….
We were called to the main break room, which doubled as the main conference room, and tripled as the Men’s Club Gathering Sanctuary. The consultants were introduced to a room of silent, glaring, suspicious Power Plant Men types. We were told that they had been working on alternate work schedules that we might possibly want to consider. No matter what, they were not going to force anything on us. We were told that we would only go on an alternate work schedule if we voted and the majority were okay with it.
Power Plant Men chins began to jut out in defiance. The rattle of someone’s dentures came from the back of the room. A nearly unanimous vote of “No” was already decided by about 90% of the people going by the the body language of the men in the room.
The consultants continued by saying that they had three alternatives that they would like to run by us. The first one was to provide coverage 7 days of the week. I think everyone in the room knew that there were only 7 days in a week, and this meant that they wanted the four maintenance crews to work every day of the week. Including Sundays, since we figured that Sunday must be included in the 7 days, since we couldn’t think of 7 days without including Sundays.
Currently, Sundays were double time. If Sunday became a regular work day, then the only double time would be during the night. You can see the reason why management wanted to increase our regular coverage to the weekend. It would eliminate a large amount of overtime. This isn’t a bad idea when you are trying to figure out how to save money.
The consultants (I’m probably going to begin a lot of paragraphs with the words… The consultants… for obvious reasons) said that the benefit of working on Sundays was that every 4 weeks we would get 6 days off of work in a row! What? How does that work? They showed us how it worked, but the majority was not in favor of working Sundays.
I personally thought that if we had to work on Sundays, then I was probably going to be looking for a new job somewhere else. I knew operators did this, but this was something that they had accepted up front when they became operators. Operators are a special breed of workers that dedicate their lives to the plant. Maintenance crews, though they are equally loyal, are not willing to give up a regular work habit. Even though I worked Sundays when an emergency came up without question, this day was normally reserved for going to Church and spending the day at home with my family. So, this was never going to be a long term option for me.
The options to work on Sundays meant that there was only one day each week (Thursday) when all four of the teams would be working on the same day. That would be the day when we would have plant-wide meetings, like the Monthly (or had it moved to Quarterly) Safety meetings.
There were two options that included Sundays. Neither of them were acceptable to the Power Plant Men. The third option was to cover Saturday. The consultants showed us how we could cover Saturday as a normal work day and every four weeks we could have 5 days off in a row. How is it, you ask, can you cover one extra day and you have more days off?
The Consultant’s answer: Work 4-10s (four tens). That is, work four ten hour days each week. When you work ten hour days for four days, you still work the same 40 hours each week, only you have to show up at the plant for four days instead of 5. This means, you have one extra day each week where you don’t even have to go to work.
Think about this… We normally arrived at the plant at 8:00 and left at 4:30 (8 hour day with a 30 minute lunch). We were being asked to come in at 7:00 and leave at 5:30. Two extra hours each day and you only have to work 4 days. The company will not only be covering a Saturday now, but they would be covering 10 hours each day instead of just 8. The dentures rattled again in the back of the room, only this time it was Bill Green’s (our plant manager)…. he was salivating at the prospect of covering an extra 20 hours each week (2 extra hours each week day and 10 hours on Saturday) by just shuffling around the work schedule. That’s 50% more coverage!
Think about this some more….. I only had to do laundry for four days of coal and fly ash soaked clothes instead of five. I only had to drive the 30 miles to the plant and the 30 miles back, four times each week instead of five. That reduces my gas by 20%. It also gives me an extra hour each week when I don’t have to drive to and from work… this comes out to 48 extra hours free each year (after subtracting vacation) for just not having to drive to work five times each week. More than an extra week’s worth of vacation. saved in driving time alone. I’ll tell you some more benefits after I show you how this worked….
The consultants explained the 4 – 10s covering a Saturday with four crews like this….. We worked on a four week cycle. Each week, each team was on a different week in the cycle. We all worked on Wednesday and Thursday. The rest of the days, there were less than 4 teams working… it worked like this….
If you are working on week 3 (Monday thru Thursday), after Thursday you don’t go back to work until next Wednesday! Five days off in a row without using any vacation!
Crazy huh? The only catch was that you had to work on a Saturday once every four weeks. But think about this…. (I seem to enjoy saying that in this post…. “think about this…”) I think it’s because the first thought is that this is dumb. Why would I want to work two extra hours each day? Why would I want to give up one of my Saturdays? Ok… while you’re thinking about that, I’ll move on to the next paragraph…
I suppose you realized by now that there are 13 Saturdays that each person would work in a 52 week year when you work a Saturday once every four weeks. Thinking about it that way isn’t so bad. Especially since the Power Plant Men had at least four weeks vacation (160 hours) by this time since the majority of the Power plant Men had been there for at least 10 years. Those with 20 years had 5 weeks vacation (200 hours). My fellow electrician Charles Foster said that to me as we were going back to work…. “I can just take vacation every time we have to work on Saturday.” — We’ll see….
With 10 hour days, that meant that if you have 4 weeks vacation, then you have 16 days off. You could take your Saturday off for vacation for the entire year, giving you 6 days off in a row every 4 weeks using only 10 hours of vacation, and you can avoid having to work any Saturdays (if that’s really what you want).
The Power Plant Men decided to give it a try to see how we liked it for a few months. The majority of us had mixed feelings about this new work schedule. The other thought in our mind was, “We paid over $100,000 for someone to come up with this? Maybe we’re in the wrong line of work.”
One problem with this plan is that we had to have an alternate carpooling schedule. Scott Hubbard and Fred Turner and I were not all on the same teams. So, we had to figure out when we were working on the same days and try to remember who drove the last time we had that particular configuration of carpoolers in order to figure out whose turn it was to drive. We figured something out that seemed to work… there were just a few times when the neighbors would hear… “No, it’s my turn! No! It’s mine! Remember last Friday? But that was you and Scott! No! I have it right here in my notes! Fred drove, we talked about Deer Stands and types of feeders. I nodded my head a lot.”
The first Saturday Charles Foster and I showed up to work, we noticed a great benefit right away. Our team was the only team working in the Maintenance Shop. That meant that we had all the trucks to ourselves! No fighting over truck keys! We didn’t have to wait in line at the tool room. No waiting around for Clearances on the equipment. We had full reign over the shop. We also had Sue Schritter go to Ponca City to pick up parts shortly before lunch so that she could bring back Pizza for us! (ok. yes. we were bribed with Pizza) Courtesy of our foreman, Alan Kramer:
We really enjoyed working on Saturday. It turned out to be the best day to work. No management stalk… um… walking around watching us from around corners…. No meetings… Just working away without interruption. We would complete a lot of work on Saturdays.
Another benefit that I don’t think was expected was a big reduction in Sick Leave. I no longer had to take off time to go to the doctor or the dentist. I now had days off during the week, so I would just schedule doctor appointments when I was not working.
Holidays were handled two ways. You still only had 8 hours off for a holiday instead of 10, so you had to work around that. When there was a holiday, you could either work four 8 hour days (instead of 10) that week and take off the holiday just as you normally would, or you could take off 8 hours just on the holiday, and either use 2 hours of vacation or come into work for 2 hours (2 hours vacation made the most sense).
When it was all said and done, the Power Plant Men stayed on 4-10s working every fourth Saturday at our plant. Other plants were able to decide on their own work schedules. I know one of the other plants decided they didn’t want to change. They still liked driving to work five days each week instead of four. They liked cleaning five days worth of dirty clothes each week instead of four. They liked having two days off each week instead of an average of three days. Maybe they didn’t know what they liked.
This brings to mind a book that I read once after reading another book recommended by Toby O’Brien. Toby gave me a book once called “One Minute Manager”.
One of the authors wrote another book called, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, M.D. I encourage everyone to read this:
Reading books like these are a lot cheaper than hiring a consultant for boo-coos just to make changes. You just have “Power Plant Reading Time” during the morning meeting and read a chapter from this little book.
The electric company in Oklahoma decided late 1995 that it was about time that the employees in the company learn about the Internet. The company recognized that the vast amount of information on the Internet was very useful and encouraged everyone to start using it. A request form was available to request access to various features the Internet provided and with your Foreman’s approval, all you had to do was take a short course in Internet Etiquette and you were in (well almost). The problem with this effort was that no one bothered to teach Plant Management about the Internet, so the “Quest for the Internet” was about to begin.
As the leading computer geek at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma I had been accessing the Internet for years. I had used CompuServe and Telnet to log into the Internet before Internet Browsers and World Wide Web (WWW) were available.
I thought it was a great idea for everyone to use the Internet, so when Alan Kramer gave us the form it didn’t take long before I filled it out. Sounds pretty simple….. but unfortunately, after a short misstep on my part, a six month battle was about to begin.
The form was simple enough, you just needed to check the boxes for which part of the Internet you needed to access, and after your foreman signed it, you mailed it to Corporate Headquarters, where you would be scheduled to attend a two hour course on how to properly use the Internet in a business setting. The form was written in a curious way that sort of indicated to me that not a lot of thought had been put into it. It was either that, or the person that created the form didn’t understand the Internet very well. Here’s why:
The different parts of the Internet that you could check that you wanted to access were these: WWW, e-mail, Telnet, NewsGroups, FTP. The World Wide Web (WWW) had yet to become popular. The number of Web sites on the Internet was still less than 250,000. Compare that to today where there is almost 1 billion websites.
Well, e-mail…. you know what that is. Telnet was the usual way I had accessed the Internet for years. I would log in through the Oklahoma State University computer using Telnet, and from there I had access to almost all of the University computers in the country as well as a lot of the Government computers. You could actually print out pages and pages of all the computers on the Internet at the time using a simple seek command.
For those of you who don’t know… Before MySpace and Facebook, NewsGroups were used to communicate to people who had similar interests. They were sort of small blog sites.
On a side note:
I was a member of a number of work related NewsGroups. One NewsGroup that I was active in was for Precipitators. There were about 50 people from all over the world in this group and we all were obsessed with working on precipitators. As it turned out, two of us lived in Stillwater Oklahoma. The other guy worked for a company called Nomadics that made bomb sniffing detectors called Fido. They had a tiny precipitator that collected the particles. We were on the opposite sides of the spectrum. We had a 70 foot tall, 200 foot wide and 100 foot long precipitator, where his precipitator was tiny. I thought a few times about applying for a job with them since they were only 4 miles from my house, but, since I wasn’t an engineer I didn’t think I had a chance of being hired. Besides, what is better than working at a Power plant?
End of Side Note.
FTP, the last item on the list stands for File Transport Protocol. This is how you downloaded or uploaded files after you have used Telnet to connect to a site.
I’m sorry I’m boring you with all this, but I’m explaining them for a reason. You see… I’m getting to the part where I made my “misstep”. Maybe it was meant to happen this way, because in the end, everything worked out better than it probably would have if I had just been a little more patient…. Here’s what I did…
After checking each of the boxes, next to WWW, Telnet, NewsGroup, e-mail and FTP, I went to the foremen’s office to have Alan Kramer sign the form so that I could mail it off to Corporate Headquarters. When I arrived, Alan was gone. He had left early that day for some reason, so I walked into Jasper Christensen’s office, our Supervisor of Maintenance and asked him to sign it. Big mistake.
I wrote a post recently about Jasper’s lack of computer knowledge and how I had goaded him for making a dumb computer decision, (see the post “Power Plant Trouble With Angels“). When I handed him the form, he glanced at it, and I could see the blank look on his face indicating that he didn’t understand the different terms such as Telnet, FTP and e-mail or WWW. He might have thought he knew what NewsGroups were, but most likely that would have been incorrect.
So, instead of signing the paper, he said, he would review it and get back to me. Well…. that was unexpected. The company was encouraging us to use the Internet, so I figured it was pretty much a slam dunk. From past experience I knew that Jasper was reluctant to approve anything that he didn’t fully understand, which makes some things difficult.
During the “We’ve Got the Power” Program (See the Post: “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got the Power’ Program“) I tried to elicit an approval from Jasper about a simple example of Thermodynamics that I thought was cut and dry, especially since Jasper was the Engineering Supervisor at the time. Even though I had a sound argument about how heat dissipates in the Air Preheater, he would never say that he would agree. Only that he understood what I was saying. So, when Jasper said that he would “get back to me on this” I knew what that meant. He was going to try to find out what these different things were.
Two weeks later, Alan Kramer told me that Jasper had decided not to approve my request for Internet access. Somewhat peeved, I went into Jasper’s office and asked him why he wouldn’t approve my request. He responded with, “Give me reasons in writing why you need each of these items on this form.” — Oh. I figured that out right away. He had tried to find out what these things meant, but (without the Internet), it was hard to find the answers. So, he was asking me to tell him what these were.
So, I went back to the Electric Shop office and I wrote a full page paper outlining what each item was (WWW, Telnet, NewsGroups, FTP and e-mail). I also explained why I was requesting access to each of these. For Telnet and FTP, one of the reasons I used was that I would Telnet into the OSHA computer and download MSDS’s (Material Safety Data Sheets) for chemicals we had at our plant. The operators had asked me a number of times if I could give them a copy of an MSDS for chemicals. It is a requirement to keep an MSDS for every chemical on the plant site, and I could easily download them from the OSHA.gov computer.
When I gave my explanation to Jasper, he said he would study it and get back to me later. Two weeks later, Jasper called me to his office and said that during a staff meeting they had discussed my request for Internet access and they had decided that I didn’t need access to the Internet to do my job. They had also decided that the only thing on the list that anyone at the plant needed was e-mail and only Jim Arnold (The Supervisor of Operations) and Summer Goebel (The head engineer) needed e-mail. No one else at the plant needed anything else. — You can see why I used phrases like “Another Brilliant Idea” when describing some of Jasper’s Management decisions. Only two people at the plant needed e-mail… . Sounds funny today, huh?
A few months later, in March 1996, I was sent to Oklahoma City to learn how to install the SAP client on desktop computers. The way I was chosen was that someone downtown called each of the Power Plants and other offices and asked the receptionist who the computer geek was at the plant. Denise Anson, our receptionist gave them my name. We were supposed to change our entire financial, inventory, maintenance, and billing system over to SAP at the end of the year from our mainframe computer system. SAP is called an ERP system or Enterprise Resource Planning system. It combines almost all the computer activities in a company into one package where everything is accessible in one application.
I will go into the implementation of SAP in more detail in later posts, but for now, I was just learning about installing the client application on the computers at our plant. There were a number of steps to the installation, and a lot of times it would fail. So, they gave us some troubleshooting tips and asked us to share any tips we came up with while we were doing this task.
When I returned to the plant, I went about installing SAP on each of the computers. I think we had 22 computers all together. Anyway, during this time, I was thinking that after 3 months, I would resubmit my request for the Internet, since after all, now everyone had e-mail since we had installed a computer network at the plant with Novell’s Netware. It was obvious that we were progressing into the computer age with or without the plant staff.
So, I filled out another request form, and even before asking I wrote up another page of reasons why I could use each of the items on the form. One new reason was that the Thomas Register was now online. This was a large set of books that had information about every supplier and vendor in the United States (and beyond). It was used to find phone number, addresses and other fun stuff about vendors. A set of books could cost $5,000.00 each and you had to buy them every couple of years to keep them current.
I didn’t even need to waste my time writing out my reasons. When I gave the form to Alan, he signed it immediately and handed it back to me. I thanked him and mailed it off. A couple of weeks later I received a note through intra-company mail that I was signed up for an Internet class in Oklahoma City. Since I had been in trouble before with going to classes in Oklahoma City, I made sure I didn’t charge any driving time expenses to go to the class.
The lady who was teaching the class knew who I was, because she had worked with me before on computer issues at the plant. It was a simple course on computer etiquette, how the Internet worked and things we should and should not do on the Internet. At the end of the course, we were told that someone would come by our desk and install the Internet on our computers. — Well, our plant was 75 miles away and I knew that it was rare to have someone from the Computer Department come out to our plant, so I didn’t expect anything soon.
It was now the summer of 1996. I was driving down to the river pumps to clean motor filters with Charles Foster when Denise Anson called me on my radio and said that a guy from the SAP team was calling me. I asked her to patch the call to my Walkie Talkie, and she did.
It was the guy from Corporate Headquarters leading the effort to install all the client applications on the computers. He said they were going to have another meeting because everyone was having so much trouble with the installation. I told him that I had already successfully installed the client on all of the computers at the plant except for one, and that was because it was an old junky one that needed to be re-imaged.
The guy was surprised that we were already finished and said that our site was the first site in the company to complete the installation. Then he said, “If there is ANYTHING I can do for you, just let me know!” I glanced over at Charles who was driving the truck and could hear our conversation over the radio, and smiled.
I said, “There’s one thing. You see. Our plant is out here in the middle of no where. I have completed the Internet training course, but we are so far away that no one ever comes around that would install the Internet on my computer, so if you could send me the files, I’ll install it myself.” He replied, “Sure Thing Buddy! I’ll share a folder where you can go pick up the files.”
After installing the files, I realized that it was just an Internet Explorer browser. We were using Windows 3.2 at this time. After opening the browser and playing around with it for a while, I realized that there wasn’t any control around my username. That is, anyone could come into our office and log on our computer and use the browser. Then we found out that you didn’t even have to log on first. The Internet was wide open. There were no real controls around the use of the Internet. The only control was just the lack of a browser on the computer!
So, here is what I did next. I went to every computer at the plant (except the staff’s computers) and installed the Internet Explorer browser on them. At each computer, I gave the Power Plant Men the same course I had taken downtown. I told them what they should do and what they shouldn’t. I showed them how the browser worked, and how to setup shortcuts, and other things. Before long every Power Plant Man and Woman at the plant was cruising the Internet except the staff…. After all… they had decided that all they needed was e-mail and only for Summer Goebel and Jim Arnold.
A few weeks after I had taught all the Power Plant Men at the plant how to use the Internet, Jasper Christensen’s voice came over the radio…. “Kevin! I want to see you in my office right away!”. Okay. The gig was up. I recognized that tone of voice from Jasper. The showdown was about to begin. I was about to be chewed out for making the Internet available to everyone. Maybe even fired. I didn’t know how upset he was going to be when he found out.
As I walked from the Electric Shop to the far corner of the Maintenance Shop to Jasper’s office, I articulated in my mind what I would say. I had decided that the best defense was to explain that all I did was install the Internet browser on the computers. I didn’t have access to actually grant anyone access to the Internet. If everyone has access to the Internet, it isn’t because I gave them access. — This was true.
I took a deep breath just before entering Jasper’s office. I went in his office with the most straight face I could muster. “Here it comes,” I thought…. the six month battle for the Internet is coming to a head. Jasper said, “I want to ask you a question about the Internet.” Trying not to choke on my words and looking as if I was interested by cocking my head a little, I replied, “Yeah? What is it?” I was conscious of my thumb hanging in my right front pocket.
Then Jasper picked up a magazine sitting on his desk and said, “There is this article in this engineering magazine, and it has this website that you can visit. How would I go to that site?” — Oh my Gosh!!!! I wanted to laugh out loud with joy! I wasn’t about to be chewed out at all. He just wanted the computer geek to show him how to use the Internet browser that had been recently installed on his computer!
Jasper obviously hadn’t taken the Internet course, otherwise he would know where the address bar is at the top…… So, I said, “Let me show you.” I walked over to his computer and walked him through each step of the process. When we were done, he turned to look at me and smiled. He said, “Thank you.” I said, “Anytime. Just let me know if you have any other questions.” I turned and walked out of the office.
As I walked back to the Electric Shop Office, I met Charles Foster who wanted to know how it went, as he had heard Jasper call me on the radio. I told him that the battle for the Internet was now over. Jasper has now become a “user”. Life was good.
Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend. It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened. We have a natural tendency to worship something. It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water. I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed. August 5, 1996.
The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant. It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer. Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance. The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual. It must have been a cloudy morning.
We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant. It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant. We weren’t really sure what we had seen. It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.
There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual. there was a guard or an operator standing out there. He waved us through the gate. about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot. It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.
The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks. They seemed to be pulling away just about that time. Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor. The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky. I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.
We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away. We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT). The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.
Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year. That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive. Our job was to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.
Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:
The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT. Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control. He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded. The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest. This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).
At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine. The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames. The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above. The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete. The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor melting the roof as if it was butter. The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.
The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator. This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on. The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should. As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone. It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.
Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight. The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools. Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator. The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.
Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights). Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.
By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down. Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.
As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion. I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before. There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode. I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.
The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River. One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong. I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.
When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once. The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris. I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine. It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.
The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it. I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff. I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.
We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation. The soot didn’t just wash off. Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room. The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.
We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner. This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again. All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.
The thought was too overwhelming. I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe. Are clothes were now black. We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators
literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.
We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!” I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot. Then he explained. “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project. You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”
Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world? Well. I am. I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.
Here is a post about how lucky I am: Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck.
Now for the hard part of the story to write about:
So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test? What happened to cause the explosion?
The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage. The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.
Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target. A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time. No one really understands some of the things he works on. Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion. I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion instead of the person responsible. The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:
You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion. Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners. I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions. You see, I haven’t completely decided.
There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover. The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof. I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy. You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.
The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered. That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump. When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.
It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged. It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling. In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage. The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.
I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me. The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth. This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place. You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.
The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation. Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.
Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage. It was ruled as “equipment failure”. Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.
I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong. I know that. That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant. A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity. Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.
That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone. To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then. My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.
On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen. It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred. It gave me a little of my faith back in the system. When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.
All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator. I just exaggerated that part a bit. But let me ask this question… Who in this story did? Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”? Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important? That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.
The question is never, “Is there a God?” The real question is “Which God do you worship?”
The first time I saw Ray Eberle was during my first summer as a summer help in 1979. He was standing in the midst of a group of mechanics who sat around him as school children sit around the librarian as a story is being read. Ray was telling a story to a group of mesmerized Power Plant Men.
Many years later I heard that Ray was invited to tell stories to hunters who were hunting elk in Montana around the campfires at night as an occupation. I think he passed on that opportunity. Who would think of leaving the comfort of a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to go sit around telling stories by campfires in Montana?
For many years I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Ray. He had joined the Safety Task Force that we had created at the plant. He had also become a member of the Confined Space Rescue Team, and was a HAZWOPER Emergency Rescue responder. I was on all of these teams with Ray, but I really had never worked side-by-side with him.
I know that at times, I had disappointed Ray by not living up to his expectations of what a True Power Plant Man should be. When we were on the Safety Task Force, after the reorganization, we had shifted gears to be more of an “Idea” task force instead of one that actually fixed safety issues. I was pushing hard to have the company move to a “Behavior-Based Safety” approach. It was a misunderstood process and if not implemented correctly would have the exact opposite effect (see the post “ABCs of Power Plant Safety“)
I know this bothered Ray. He let me know one day when I received an intra-company envelope with a memo in it. It said that he was resigning from the team:
I hang on to the oddest things. Some things that lift me up and some things that break my heart. I figure that there is a lesson for me in this memo. That is why I have held onto it for the past 20 years. I suppose this enforces my philosophy of trying to make a “Bad First Impression” (See the post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“).
Ray Eberle told me once that he had always thought that I was a lazy stuck up electrician that didn’t like to get dirty and just sat around in the electric shop all the time. (read the post: “Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“) He said that he saw me as a “higher than thou” type of person that looked down on others. Then one day I said something that totally changed his perception of me. I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
It’s funny to learn sometimes what people actually think of you. Then it’s even funnier to think what makes them change their mind. You see… when Ray Eberle was sharing his thoughts about me, we had become very good friends. He said that he felt that he finally understood me when I uttered those three words “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember the moment I had said that. As members of the Confined Space Rescue Team, we were responsible for inspecting the SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) each month. We were standing in the control room and had a couple of the SCBAs sitting out while the instructor was showing us the proper way to inspect them.
Ray had asked a few “what-if” questions (like “What if the pressure is right at the minimum amount?” or “What if we send a tank off to be refilled and we have an emergency?”) and his questions weren’t being answered. He was getting a little hot under the collar, so I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember Ray’s reaction. He turned to me and said, “What did you say?” I looked him straight in the eye with a grin on my face and repeated “Don’t get twisted.”
At that moment I didn’t know if Ray was going to haul off and belt me one, so I was mentally preparing my various responses…. like…. get ready to duck… just try to stand there as if nothing had happened… run and call a therapist because my ego had been shattered (no… wait… that wasn’t then)…. Anyway… instead Ray just smiled at me and said calmly, “I thought that was what you had said.” I could see that he was in deep thought.
It was a couple of years later that I found out that at that moment Ray Eberle’s perception of who I was had done a 180. Isn’t it funny what causes someone to change their mind sometimes? Maybe he saw a spot of dirt on my tee shirt.
One day during the spring of 1998 my foreman, Alan Kramer told me that Jim Arnold wanted me to be assigned to create “Task Lists” in SAP.
Task lists are instructions on how to perform jobs associated with trouble tickets. Jim Arnold (probably to keep me out of trouble) had assigned me to write task lists and Ray Eberle to write Bill of Materials (or BOMs). Thus began our three year journey together working side-by-side entering data into the computer.
Writing task lists didn’t mean that I just sat in front of the computer all day. In order to create them, I had to find out what tools a person would use to fix something, and what procedure they would perform in order to do their job. This meant that a lot of times, I would go up to a crew that was working on something and I would ask them to tell me all the tools they used and how they did their job while standing at the job site.
I will write another post later about how I actually did the task of writing task lists, so I won’t go into any more detail. After a short while, Ray and I figured out that we needed to be in the front office close to the Master Prints and the room where the “X-Files” (or X-drawings) were kept.
X-Files didn’t have to do with “Aliens”. X-Files were files in cabinets that had all the vendor information about every piece of equipment at the plant (just about). They were called X Files because their filing numbers all began with an X. Like X-160183.
About 50% of my time for the next three years was spent creating task lists. The rest of the time, I was still doing my regular electrician job, and going to school. After the first year, I moved into the Master Print Room and Ray and I set up shop working on the computers next to each other.
Ray was a collector of Habanero Sauce bottles.
He would travel the country looking for unique Habanero Sauce bottles. Each day, Ray would bring a bottle of habanero sauce to work and pour some on his lunch.
I ate the same boring lunch every day. It consisted of a ham sandwich with a slice of American cheese. Then I had some kind of fruit, like an apple or an orange. Since I was no longer eating lunch in the electric shop where Charles would give me peppers with my sandwich, when Ray asked me if I would like some hot sauce for my sandwich I was quick to give it a try.
There is something very addictive about habanero sauce. After a few days of having this sauce on my sandwich, I went to the grocery store and bought some of my own bottles of habanero sauce and salsa.
Ok. One side story…
I was sitting at home reading a school book at the dining room table, my 9 year old daughter Elizabeth walked up to the table and took a tortilla chip from my paper plate, dipped it in the (habanero) salsa in the bowl next to it, and began to put it in her mouth. Without looking up from my book, I said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t be stealing my chips, she went ahead and put it in her mouth. Grinning because she had stolen my chip, she began to walk away. Then she started to squeal a little. Moments later she was hopping all over the kitchen trying to find some way to put out the fire.
I told her the best remedy is to eat more chips. Don’t drink water. It makes it worse. Eat chips without salsa.
End of side story…
I mentioned above that Ray Eberle is a very good storyteller. He told me a series of stories that I call the “Walt Oswalt Stories”. These were real life stories about a Power Plant Man at our plant. They were so funny that I would go home and share them with my wife and she would fold over laughing at them. She said that Ray needs to write a book about Walt Oswalt.
I have shared some of these stories with various people in my later career and the reaction is always the same. These stories belong in a book. Later this year, I will share some of the Walt Oswalt stories in a post or two then you will see what I’m talking about.
One time in 2007 when I worked for Dell, I was meeting with the CEO of the world’s leading timekeeping company called Kronos. His name is Aron Ain.
My director, Chris Enslin was with us in Massachusetts.
Aron had taken us out to eat dinner, and Chris asked me to tell Aron some Walt Oswalt stories, so I shared a couple.
Then a couple of years later in 2009, Chris told me that he was at a meeting with CEOs from companies all over the United States, and there was Aron standing in the middle of a group of CEOs telling them a Walt Oswalt story.
Here is a picture of Ray Eberle sitting next to me at our computers in the master print room at the power plant:
Each day at lunch, after we had eaten our sandwiches, Ray would reach into his lunch box and pull out a worn black book and begin reading it. He would spend about 10 to 15 minutes reading. Sometimes he would stop and tell me something interesting about something he had just read. When he was done, the book went back into his lunch box and we continued working.
I remember some of the interesting conversations we used to have about that worn black book in his lunch box. One time we talked about a story in the book about how a hand just appeared out of nowhere and began writing on a wall when this guy named Belshazzar was having a party. Then this guy named Daniel came and told him what it meant, and that night Belshazzar was killed. Ray said, “…. God sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” What do you think about that? My response was…. “Yeah. God sure has class. He could have just struck the guy down right there and then. Instead he has a hand appear and write something on the wall. That way we can now have the saying: The writing on the wall’.”
I always thought if you were going to pick a good friend to have, if you pick one that reads their Bible every day during lunch, they are bound to be trustworthy. I could tell that I could trust Ray with anything. So, I spent the three years with Ray telling him everything I knew about myself while Ray shared a good deal of his life story with me. Of course… being nine and a half years older than I was, he had lived a lot more life than I had.
When I left the Power Plant in 2001 to work for Dell, one of the things I missed the most was sitting next to Ray talking about our lives, eating our lunch with Habanero Sauce, and listening to Ray’s stories about Prominent Power Plant Men! I have considered Ray a very dear friend for many years and I am honored to have him take me into his confidence. I only hope that I could be as much of a friend to Ray as he has been to me.