An all-star operations team shares what it was like to compete in Germany. Turns out things aren't so different worldwide when it comes to water.

Traveling overseas to compete against international operators might seem daunting, but a squad of American wastewater collection and treatment personnel felt right at home recently. In fact, they brought back gold.

Team KSB-USA won the Open German Championship in Wastewater Technology, held June 1-4 in Munich, Germany, at IFAT, the world’s leading trade fair for water, sewage, waste and raw materials management. The event, organized by the German Association for Water, Wastewater and Waste, or DWA, is modeled after the Water Environment Federation’s award-winning Operations Challenge skills competition.

The American team — sponsored by KSB Inc., which specializes in services for power generation, general industry, and the water and wastewater markets — consisted of Dave Vogel, team coach, from Lanesborough, Massachusetts; and competitors Dale Burrow, of Dallas, Texas; Donnie Cagle, of Wake Forest, North Carolina; and Steve Motley, of Virginia Beach, Virginia. They competed against 36 teams from six countries. Participants were judged on four core competencies of wastewater operations, including process control, scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, control and operational monitoring, and work safety and protection of health. The team with the most combined points from each discipline wins.

Related: WEF Announces Winners of MS4 Stormwater, Green Infrastructure Awards


“It was a once-in-a-lifetime-type experience,” says Motley, regulatory compliance manager for Virginia Beach Public Utilities. “Not just from a competition standpoint, but being able to see how other folks do the same jobs we do and how they do them differently.”

Origins of the international competition date to 2007, when some DWA members attended the Operations Challenge at WEFTEC in San Diego, California.

Related: Wastewater Utilities Encouraged to Apply for Recognition Program

“I think they immediately understood the professional development value of it,” says Steve Harrison, senior manager, operations programs, for WEF, and coordinator of the Operations Challenge. “And they decided to undertake emulating the event.”

Harrison stayed in touch with DWA staffers, and one proposed having two German teams compete in the 2015 Operations Challenge at WEFTEC in Chicago, which they did. In 2016, WEF reciprocated, sending the American team to IFAT.

The American squad was called a dream team because it featured Operations Challenge all-stars. Vogel is a seasoned water professional who has participated in every Operations Challenge since it began in 1988. Burrow has won five Division 1 Operations Challenge championships. Cagle has won 10 Division 1 championships, and Motley, Cagle’s teammate on the Terminal Velocity squad, has won five Division 1 titles.

Related: Team USA Earns Operations Challenge Gold in Germany

“Two-thirds of the team (Cagle and Motley) had competed together since 2005, which helped a lot,” Motley says. “I hadn’t competed with Dale but had competed against him for several years. We knew he was a strong competitor and had many of the same traits that we did. We worked very well together. There was a lot of good teamwork amongst each other, helping each other out.”

Despite their previous achievements, the Americans knew they faced a stiff challenge. Operations Challenge teams feature four members competing in five events. The German event has three-person teams in four events. And although the German competition and Operations Challenge share similar event concepts, the events differ.

The IFAT competition actually has two competitions with two events apiece. The Sewer Systems Professionals Competition consists of Maintenance and Repair and Health and Safety; the Wastewater Treatment Plant Specialist Competition features Process Control and Instrumentation, Control and Operations Monitoring.

Subscribe: If you don't want to bring your iPad into the bathroom, we can send you a magazine subscription for free!

Motley explained that in the American Operations Challenge Process Control event, competitors take a written test covering wastewater collection and treatment. This year, a computer modeling simulation task was also added. In the German competition, participants are given a written scenario with several questions and various calculations to perform. Participants are given magnets that describe each part of the treatment plant in the scenario. They then place magnets in order on a whiteboard and draw straight lines for various process flows, such as influent, sludge, gas and precipitant. Each process flow uses a different color marker. Competitors then provide descriptions, answers to questions and calculations in the correct part of the treatment plant.

During the American Laboratory event, competitors perform a wastewater laboratory experiment with one common task to complete. In Germany’s similar Instrumentation, Control and Operations monitoring contest, competitors have three separate tasks, though team members can help each other. The tasks involve installing and commissioning a test facility, commissioning a pneumatic gate valve and operational monitoring of a facility for wastewater treatment.

In the American Operations Challenge Safety, competitors perform a confined space rescue and repair a check valve. In Germany, they perform a confined space rescue. These events are very similar but use different equipment, and the platforms involved are of different height and dimensions. In the Maintenance category, Operations Challenge competitors perform routine maintenance on a Godwin emergency bypass pump, and they lock out and prepare a lift station for bypass due to pump failure. In Germany, competitors lock out a pump station, remove a submersible pump using a chain hoist and gantry, replace the impeller on the submersible pump, reinstall the submersible pump using a chain hoist and gantry, and then return the pump station back to service with water flowing through the pump. 

Subscribe: Save the trees for beavers, sign up for our E-Newsletter!
Team KSB-USA traveled to Germany early so participants could practice the events for a day and a half at Nuremburg. Also, Motley said, they watched trainees compete in an almost identical competition June 1 and 2, before the June 3 and 4 pro event. Still, that preparation paled when compared to the typical buildup for the Operations Challenge, when competitors usually practice two days a week for months before WEFTEC.

“To the guys, it was insufficient, because they’re accustomed to working very hard in anticipation of the events,” Harrison says. “But as an observer, I’ll say they were relentlessly methodical about preparing.”

When competition day arrived, Motley said team members just focused on doing their best.

“I wanted to win, of course,” he says. “Did I expect that we would? Not really. I didn’t expect last place, either. I knew that we’d do the best that we could. I hoped that we would win, but realistically, I didn’t necessarily think we would just because the unfamiliarity with the equipment and the events themselves.”

When the two-day competition concluded, Team KSB-USA won first place in Safety, second in Pump and first place overall. Moreover, Motley said, everyone involved gained increased appreciation for the discipline development such contests inspire.

“It’s great to win, but that’s not, in my opinion, the main purpose of these types of competitions,” he says. “It’s all about developing your personal leadership skills, professional skills and professional development for the place that you work. You’ll find that most of the competitors would tell you that they’ve had success in their professional career as a result of competing in the Operations Challenge as a result of those skills.”

What’s next for the champions? The 2017 Operations Challenge, of course. And everyone involved hopes another American team will travel to the next Open German Championship in 2018, when they can again celebrate the international wastewater collection and treatment community.

“Whether it’s implied or acknowledged, I think all of the people in this business understand the complexity and importance of the work they do,” Harrison says. “Much of the public has no idea where their water comes from or where it goes when they’re done with it. I think there’s sort of an unspoken kinship among water-quality professionals around the world. We’re all working on the same water.”

Related Stories

Like this story? Sign up for alerts!