Continuing to Serve

Oregon operator turns Air Force experience into a successful wastewater career.

Continuing  to Serve

Like many 18-year-olds, Kyle Bartlett didn’t know what he wanted to do upon graduating from high school, so he joined the U.S. Air Force. During his four years in uniform, the Oregon native found himself working in the wastewater treatment plant at Eielson Air Force Base outside Fairbanks, Alaska. It seemed a good fit.

After his military service, Bartlett returned to his hometown of Roseburg and went to work for Roseburg Urban Sanitary Authority. That proved to be another good fit: The 30-year-old was named Oregon Collections Operator for 2021, an annual award presented by the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association.

“It all worked out,” Bartlett says of his early search for a life’s work. “I was able to have an active-duty role in the air force that translated into a civilian role that I could make a career out of.”

Multiple hats

Roseburg Urban Sanitary Authority provides services for the county seat town in Douglas County as well for a belt around the city, more than 15 square miles in all. The system contains some 11,000 sewer connections, more than 4,100 manholes and includes a treatment plant with a capacity of about 8 mgd.

The authority’s program also incorporates 340 acres of nearby farmland, which is billed as a natural treatment system. Treated effluent is piped to it and the nutrient-rich water is filtered and polished by soil and vegetation before draining into the South Umpqua River.

This is the system Bartlett joined in 2015 as a collections operator. Three years later, he was promoted to lead CCTV operator. One year after that, he became an acting supervisor as well, which means besides trucking around the system in the department’s TV van, he schedules and monitors the work of six other department employees.

“It added another dimension to my work,” Bartlett acknowledges. “I have to keep things flowing and operating.”

Essentially, he has to do a little bit of everything. “We’re a small agency,” says Stephen Lusch, superintendent of collections and Bartlett’s immediate boss. “We are responsible for everything to do with the collections system in the city and also build and maintain the berms and roads for the natural treatment system.”

Consequently, when Bartlett’s camera work reveals blockages or other issues in main and tertiary lines, his job isn’t done. He just changes hats and moves from cameraman to maintenance man. “We are a jack-of-all-trades crew,” he says. “In the event of an emergency in the system, I am right there with everyone else getting it fixed.”

This being verdant Oregon, trees are everywhere — including underground where they send their roots into sewer system infrastructure, fostering inflow and infiltration issues and root blockage headaches. Bartlett admits to having a “love-hate relationship” with the trees, willow tree roots being particularly invasive.    

To clear away root balls — or congealed grease blockages from restaurants — the department rolls out an Aquatech B-6 combo hydrovac truck or a larger Super Products Camel Maxx that can pump 80 gpm at 2,500 psi.

Bartlett particularly enjoys the inspection work. “I find the most satisfaction in discovering issues that need to be corrected so we can keep our system in the best shape possible,” he says.

The tools he uses to search out problems are a suite of Envirosight ROVVER X crawler inspection cameras. With several of the robotic multi-wheeled camera models at his disposal, Bartlett can get a look at the interior of lateral pipes as small as 4 inches in diameter or peer inside trunk lines several feet in diameter. The system is mostly comprised of 8-inch pipe.

A challenging part of the inspection work, according to Bartlett, is setting up a camera for a run. Which camera is best suited for the job? Will a larger or smaller wheeled-unit work best? Should the camera head be mounted on an elevated stand? Occasionally, a camera will crawl into place and Bartlett can see a different setup is required, at which point he’ll retool.

A systematic inspection of the complete Roseburg network used to take six years. With the new Envirosight cameras, the survey is completed in four years.

“The cameras are state-of-the-art and move quicker. That makes my job easier,” Bartlett says. “But I think it also has to do with our crew. We are clicking on the same page now. Everyone wants to do a good job.”

That was not always the case. Team spirit has grown since Bartlett was given supervisory responsibilities, Lusch says. “I can tell you that since Kyle took over as supervisor, morale of the crew has improved significantly. One of his leadership skills is that he communicates with people at all levels. They appreciate that.”

Reluctant to “toot my own horn,” Bartlett acknowledges that leadership is an instinctual trait. “I just naturally see when a hole needs filling and I’m willing to step up and fill it the best I can.”

Core values

Lusch seems to be operating a school for collections personnel. Bartlett’s recent recognition by the clean water association makes him the fifth Roseburg operator in 10 years to be honored with the award. He was mentored in CCTV work by the 2017 association winner, Dean Ronk. “He helped me out a ton.”

Lusch attributes this pattern of excellence in employees to good hiring practices. Each candidate for a job is interviewed by a five-person panel representing each department. “It is getting harder and harder to recruit good people to positions here. Five of us interviewed Kyle over Skype, this was before Zoom, and I can tell you when we hung up the phone, everyone in the room said, ‘This is the guy.’” Their judgment has been borne out.

Bartlett has steadily advanced in his technical certification and recently earned a Level IV certificate for waste collection, at which time the department eliminated the “acting” from acting supervisor. He is a committed advocate of safety on the job — the job often being in and under the streets of Roseburg — and volunteered to serve on the authority’s safety committee. “I just want us to do the best job we can and make sure everyone goes home at the end of the day.”

He also volunteers to help in community outreach programs to raise awareness of wastewater collections issues. “We want to tell people things that can help improve our program,” Bartlett says. For example, use of flushable wipes is discouraged because they contribute to clogged pipes and pumps. “People are receptive. We haven’t seen a huge difference yet, but I think we will.”

Bartlett dates his good work ethic to his service in the military, to the core values instilled in him during those years. While Lusch, himself a retiree from the U.S. Army, believes Bartlett’s service helped develop his skills, he is not persuaded that military service should get all the credit for his employee’s workplace character.

“When I checked with a previous employer before hiring Kyle — I think he had only the one employer before the Air Force — her comment was, ‘You need to hire that guy.’ That told me a lot. When someone talks like that about a young person, it is significant.”

Right track

So, as Bartlett says, it has all worked out, for him and for Roseburg Urban Sanitary Authority. He looks back and feels good about the decisions that have propelled him to where he is today.

“You know, when I was in high school, we would get preached at all the time that we needed to go to college and get a degree in something. I think I have shown that you don’t have to get a degree to have job satisfaction and make a difference in your community. I certainly feel like I’m contributing to my community.”

He could be on track to help his community for some time to come. Lusch says he plans to retire in about five years. “Kyle is the logical choice to be my successor as superintendent.”


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