Badge of the Professional

Wastewater collections system operators in Monroe County, N.Y., go to school to improve their skills and earn certification in their specialty

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When is a wastewater collections department a school? When it’s the Pure Waters Division of the Monroe County (N.Y.) Department of Environmental Services.


The division’s management and staff have developed a collections system certification curriculum that allows employees to advance toward meeting voluntary Grade 1 through 4 certification requirements as set by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the New York Water Environment Association (NYWEA).


The program is unique in the state, and one of just a few nationwide. The coursework takes five months to complete and is taught by volunteers from the division’s diverse staff. “We receive many benefits from it,” says Bill Putt, collections system manager. “We’ve certified 47 employees since 2005, and we’ve seen how the program encourages pride and professionalism among our staff.”


Service to 200,000

Monroe County’s Pure Waters Division consists of 120 employees, organized into sections that operate and support wastewater collection and treatment systems serving sewer districts in the city of Rochester and surrounding suburbs.

The division’s collections system includes more than 1,200 miles of sewers and serves a population of about 200,000. Putt’s team also cares for 57 remote pump stations and about 30 miles of deep rock tunnels drilled in the 1970s to store combined sewage and stormwater during rain events. Two wastewater treatment plants — North West Quadrant and Frank E. Van Lare — accept, clean and discharge an average of 150 mgd into Lake Ontario.


Impetus for the training program came from Mary Jo Healy, safety and training analyst, who had experience as a certified collections system operator during previous employment in Wyoming. Previously, the division sent a small group of operators to the state certification program, conducted jointly by the NYWEA and the DEC. But operators came away feeling the process didn’t prepare them as well as it could have. “We did well, but we felt we needed additional training in order to prepare our employees for the exam,” Putt says.


Soon after, Healy and Putt began putting their own curriculum together, and by the fall of 2004, the program was up and running, enrolling its first class of collections system employees.


The program was built off the highly successful Operation and Maintenance of Wastewater Collection Systems, Volumes 1 and 2, from the California State University at Sacramento Office of Water Programs. Monroe County complemented the manuals with a rich program of practical training based on the expertise already held by the division’s employees.


“The manuals are excellent for test preparation, but the exam includes questions on day-to-day operations,” says Healy. “We have many dedicated employees who also have experience and expertise they can share with others. Most are already certified. They readily volunteer, and we rarely have to twist anybody’s arm. What’s more fun than talking about your job?”


Rob Tyndall, assistant sewer collections supervisor, is a good example. On the Monroe County staff for nearly 11 years, with a background in hydraulics and pump stations, he has been a willing instructor. “We pooled our thoughts and said, ‘Hey, we have our own talent base to work from,’” he says. He observes that instructors get positive feedback, and that employees enjoy exchanging knowledge with their co-workers.


Four-part curriculum

The Monroe County training program prepares students for all four grades of certification. In Grade 1, employees learn where everything is and where everything goes — collections system basics. Grade 2 covers operations, and students deal with topics from proper operation of jetter-vacuum units, to pipe specifications, to pumping stations, to sewer rehabilitation. Grade 3 is devoted to troubleshooting, and Grade 4 emphasizes management skills, such as budgeting and planning.


The classes begin in fall and consist of 23 sessions, each taking two to two-and-a-half hours a week. After a break for the winter holidays, the schedule resumes, and it finishes up with certification testing in April. The division allows the training to occur on work time and pays for the cost of training and certification.


The training is rigorous: As in a school or college, the program sets out expectations for those taking the classes. They are expected to be on time and prepared for class, to complete weekly homework assignments on time, to study on their own, and to participate in class. No more than two absences are allowed, and those who miss sessions must make up the class work tests within seven days.


“When we began, it seemed like everybody wanted to go directly to Grade 4, but we insisted they start at Grade 1,” says Healy. “We wanted to ensure they had a solid foundation to understand collections system operation. Plus, we wanted everyone to have a chance to succeed. It’s really all about success.”


Each year’s class contains eight to 12 students, and Healy and Putt are proud that the groups are diverse. “Diversity is a key,” Putt says. “We have collections system operators, mechanics, heavy equipment operators, pipe layers, and technicians — including industrial waste control and permit review — all in the same class. With this format, they share their experiences, create camaraderie, and educate each other.


“For example, some of collections system personnel have limited experience with pumps, but our mechanics work with pumps daily. Cross-training is critical. We exchange knowledge by sharing stories and experiences.”


Breeding success

The approach appeals to the students. George McAvinney, collections supervisor, has taken all four certification exams and is proud that he passed each level on the first try. “It’s been very successful,” McAvinney says. “Although I had limited actual field experience, taking the classes along with other employees gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of different people and become familiar with different processes.


“In a large department like ours, an employee can get pigeon-holed doing the same thing. So this was a great opportunity to get a better understanding and appreciation for all the different skills needed to operate a collections system.”

Trainer Tyndall says the students add a lot to the teaching experience. “Regardless of the course, everyone in the class brings different skill sets to the scene. That allows us, as instructors, to keep the class fresh. It builds ownership. Those who have taken the course are the ones doing the training now.”


Tyndall also likes the format because it allows the instructors to tailor the coursework to students’ needs and strengths. He describes one situation where he was able to conduct some special tutoring for students who needed help in math. In another case, he organized a tour to a pumping station so students could see the practical application of what they were learning. “We’ve all learned what works and what doesn’t as we’ve gone along,” he says.


Putt believes the entire department benefits from the program — not just the employees. As students complete the coursework and pass the certification test, their certificates are posted at the division on what Putt calls “The Wall of Fame.”


Employees pay keen attention to the wall, and they enjoy seeing it change as new certifications are achieved. “Ultimately,” says Putt, “our goal is to give all eligible employees an opportunity to become certified.”


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