Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Arcs and Sparks

I was saying to Jon just yesterday that arson seems to be on the rise in the neighbourhood despite increased police presence. Aside from the seven or so fire trucks screaming down the street each evening, the burning van Jon saw on the street next to ours on Friday was Not a Good Sign.

THIS morning, I awoke about eight minutes before my alarm was to go off. I lay there, trying to enjoy those last few minutes of warm and dark, but an odd sound kept penetrating through my catnapping. It sounded to me like water, and I kept running through watery possibilities-- Jon taking a way-early shower, Jon doing an inexplicable load of laundry, a burst pipe, rain coming through an open window...

The sound was only coming through the window at the back of the house, though.

The fire engines didn't alarm me at first-- as I said, they've become commonplace-- until they stopped in front of our house, flooding red lights through the window.

The picture began to clear for me. I climbed out of bed, and stepped from the bedroom into the main section of the upper story. It was all aglow with orange. I couldn't smell any smoke, and as I walked forward to the window I held out my hands to gauge the heat. I felt no approaching inferno, and when I reached the rear window I looked down into the garden and saw the source of the trouble.

The next-door neighhbour's shoulda-been-condemned mess of a garage was ablaze. Garages in our area are outbuildings facing an alleyway; so the houses themselves looked safe. I couldn't tell if our own garage had caught fire yet, but the one on the other side of the inferno was already licked with flames along its roof.

Things were alarming, but not yet catastrophic.

Jon started running around screaming about the gas lines and the need to save all Grandma's photo albums. I put on my shoes and contemplated Bandit the cat, who was now awake and seemed awfully phlegmatic for a creature that's supposed to sense danger. The lights we had turned on had flickered repeatedly, and given that the power lines go over the garages, it was reasonable to fear that they'd go out. I powered down and unplugged my computer (my version of Jon's "Save the Photos!" urge) and hoped that no arcs really would set the house alight.

I also hoped that Grandma wouldn't have a heart attack.

I saw the blue-white flash of the arc that took out our neighbour's electricity while I was standing on the back porch watching fire fighters tramp through the vegetable patch. Our own power stayed on, no smoke was in the house, and Grandma took the whole thing pretty well.

I washed the dishes while I waited to see how our power situation was. By this time, I felt that short of the electrical problem, things were in good hands. The fire brigades were at work, my immediate family and possessions were safe, and there wasn't much left in the garden to be stepped on. I would probably be late for work, so I called up Mac to try to arrange for an apprentice to watch the phones until I got there.

When the DECO guys showed up to fix the distribution lines, I took my shower. Jon was outside talking to the fire fighters and the burnt garage's owner. Our phone lines were also down, and the company had been called to fix that.

All in all, I was ten minutes late for work, apparently missed no calls (the requested apprentice was late himself), nothin' of ours was damaged, and DECO and SBC fixed everything up that morning. It was a terrible way to wake up, but ultimately wasn't so bad. One morning like that is enough for a lifetime, even so. I am ticked at myself for not investigating the "water" sound when I sensed something was funny as soon as I awoke, but my consolation is that the fire brigade wouldn't have arrived any earlier for it-- clearly, they must have been told even before I awoke at 4:53.

It was arson, of course. This be Detroit and all.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

It never ends....

I missed some real "go boom" action last week. DECO finally energized their new transformer about ten minutes after I, Gordon, and the guys left the station. Ten minutes after that, the thing failed.

Big explosion. Big, big, explosion. The transformer lifted clear off the concrete mat. Fortunately, none of the eight guys who were standing around it were hurt.

Chirpy sez they were lucky it was only a primary explosion, and that the transformer didn't fail a second time. Primary failures are loud. Secondary explosions send parts flying.

Anyway, the new transformer is shot, and the new cable they spent weeks laying may be ruined as well. I'm glad it's not our stuff. We didn't have a transformer repair budget to begin with!

Tempers are getting frayed over on the DECO side of the fence. About five guys had a hell of a spat today over regulatory issues-- the operators and the PERT guys were at each others' throats and both were bashing the Underground. All paperwork-related stuff, regarding who signs in on whose crew, but its an indication of bad times in general.

Hey, maybe we can lure some people over to our company after this! Join the dark side, fellas...

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The downside of working with high-voltage equipment

Gordon got a memo yesterday from the superintendent. It seems we had a couple of near-tragedies at the beginning of the month. First, a guy put a ladder up on an energized breaker instead of the de-energized one the guys were working on. Then, a guy drove a piece of machinery underneath another energized section of equipment, where he shouldn't have been in the first place.

I shared this info with some of my guys this morning. They'd heard of both incidents, but they also claimed that the same guy was involved in both of these near-misses. They didn't name names, but through their discussion of said incidents, I was able to figure out whom they meant.

He's a nice guy, reserved and fairly kind. He seems more mature than about half the guys we have in the apprentice program, but he is new to the kind of maintenance work we do here and his inexperience came out in these two close calls. Just in terms of personality, he isn't the first guy you'd expect to put a ladder up on an energized breaker. In fact, when I told my Northern counterpart about the "incidents," she immediately suspected one of my "cocky" cut-ups was at fault. Not so-- the cocky one was among those in my office, discussing the whole business with his mates with the mixture of bravado, scorn, and real apprehension you'd expect from a pack of twenty-something guys.

I realize working on the transmission system can be dangerous. Even if I didn't have a healthy respect for the power of 345,000 volts from the get-go, the stories Gordon and the other DECO veterans have told me would have given me a graphic idea of how bad an accident on the job can be.

I'll need to write about the Crestwood fire sometime.

The prospect of somebody dying on the job is always in the back of my mind. Even more present is the reality that many of my co-workers are, statistically speaking, nearing the end of what this business calls the "normal life cycle." One of the North operators had a major illness this summer, though he's expected to fully recover. One of my South guys went back into retirement after four of his contemporaries from DECO died in a brief time-frame. He opened his copy of the DECO retirees' magazine one month and found all four of their obituaries. He decided life was too short not to enjoy the retirement he'd already earned.

Mortality is something you live with. That's true for you people who don't work on power lines, too. Whether Americans can stand it or not, death is not optional.

That doesn't mean stupid accidents are any less stupid. One of the guys I work with daily, a guy I am fond of, a guy who showed me how to assemble a breaker valve during lunch break one Friday, nearly turned himself into a crispy critter. Twice.

Chirpy says that he's never seen a young guy accidentally kill himself, that it's always the older guys who get overconfident and take shortcuts.

Not very comforting, ne?