Power plant operators are an integral to running a dam. But what does it mean to be an operator? To gain a better understanding of the job, we interviewed three power plant operators who work at dams in the Walla Walla District: Telzey Bartley, Billie Guille and Summer Dellamater.
Q: How would you describe your job? What are you responsible for?
Telzey Bartley -- Dual-Rate Power Plant Operator at McNary Lock and Dam:
“Primarily I’m one of the roving operators. We run the navigation lock, we run all the equipment, we check the equipment, we hang clearances and we do any switching that needs to be done for work. That’s primarily what I do, and then if necessary I can fill in as a chief operator, write the clearances, issue work, and then they do all the interfacing with BPA to make sure we’re making power, spilling water, whatever’s necessary.”
Billie Guille -- Senior Power Plant Operator at Little Goose Lock and Dam:
“Everything. Pretty much almost anything with the plant. We don’t do anything with the people, we have no supervisory responsibilities, which I really like. But there are only two people who override somebody in my position and that’s the Chief of Operations and the OPM. We don’t do a lot of the heavy lifting, but we do get involved in a lot of stuff, like when everybody went home, we picked up extra preventive maintenance type things because we didn’t have the staff here to do them. … We do rounds, we walk. My main job is sitting in the control room, monitoring, making sure everything is working right. At least twice a shift you go out, you walk the entire plant and look to make sure that everything out there is matching what you’re seeing inside.”
“It requires you to be an independent thinker and have a certain amount of confidence, because when something goes wrong, not only do you get to deal with it, you get to defend your actions after the fact. And that goes back to making sure you’ve actually read all the stuff there is to read on it.”
Summer Dellamater -- Power Plant Operator at Lower Monumental Lock and Dam:
“Power plant operators run the dam, so we operate the generators, the lock and all the equipment and systems here. … I enjoy it. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I have no electrical or mechanical background, so it’s been a challenge for me. The thing I love about this job is the freedom to be able to work on my own and get the task completed on my own, at my pace. … Walking through the plant and finding something wrong, that’s fun … it’s like being an investigator. I like finding problems like that. Its enjoyable to me. And working with the crews to get things done around the plant.”
Q: How did you get this job?
“I was going to school in Spokane, at Spokane Community College studying electrical maintenance, and they were recruiting for the training program out of that program in Spokane. So, when they came up for recruitment I decided to apply, and I got hired. I was looking into what kind of jobs were available that would provide good benefits, that would have a good longevity of a career, that were available for women, and I just thought this would be a good fit. So I decided to pursue electrical and this is where I ended up, which is nice because I’m from Ritzville, so it’s fairly close to home.”
“I went back to school when I was younger, got a degree in civil engineering technology and found I really didn’t care to work inside a cubicle setting. I had made up my mind to move on to DOT, Department of Transportation, and they opened up the apprenticeship program out here at that time … I applied for that and was surprised when I got it. But I went through that program and everything went well from there. … I wanted a job that got me more outdoors and allowed me some travel. I’d been working in mental health and I wanted something completely different from what I’d been doing.”
“I was working as a supply tech at McNary and there were a few people, especially operators, that would come in and eat all my candy that I had on my desk. … And one of those operators, Andy Michel, who works at Ice Harbor, said to me ‘you need to be an operator.’ I didn’t really know what an operator was, I didn’t really know anything about the dam because I was a supply tech, I ordered supplies, didn’t ask questions. I’d only been there about a year or two. And people started talking to me about the apprenticeship, like ‘hey, you’d really be a good operator, we think you should apply.’ … So I applied for the apprenticeship and I got an interview and now I’m an operator.”
“I want to say that I’m thankful for this job and I’m really thankful for the people who have helped me along the way. Because you’re going to need help if you’re in the apprenticeship, if you’re learning a new job. And when I got to Lower Monumental, the crews and operations really helped. They took me in, they taught me the systems, they went out of their way. … there are people who want to see you succeed and as long as you just gravitate towards them, stick with them, it’s awesome.”
Q: What’s your favorite part of the job?
“Just that every day is different. We’re constantly doing different things. It’s kind of nice to have a new challenge all the time, and just seeing what comes up every day. It doesn’t get boring most of the time.”
“The independence. I have a list of duties. When my boss wants extras stuff, he’ll let us know, and it’s kind of up to you to make sure it fits in. I don’t have anybody saying that from 9:00 to 9:15 you need to do this, etcetera, etcetera. You just know what you need to do and you do it.”
“My favorite part of the job is working with the crews to get tasks done. It can be fun, it can be challenging, but working together with them to get a problem solved, that’s fun to me.”
Q: What challenges have you faced?
“The biggest challenges I’ve really had is working with contractors, having them take me seriously. They usually assume I’m a secretary or an apprentice, particularly when I was younger, like in my 20s. It was hard. Even when I would have an apprentice with me, they would always want to talk to them. But it is what it is, you just have to make it clear that you’re the one who’s actually a journeyman.”
“When I was deciding between electrical and operations, one of the old guys told me it was referred to as a heart attack job. Because everything is routine … but, the other part of it is when something goes wrong, it’s yours. It doesn’t matter what’s wrong, whether somebody dies, whether something blows up, whether you lose the power, whether you got flooding, you’re the key point at the whole situation. So, you go from zero to 60 very quickly.”
“The biggest hurdle and obstacle in this job is being claustrophobic. I don’t like elevators and I don’t like being way down in galleries that are wet, dark and have only one or two exits. Not my favorite. I’ve had to spend days, multiple days down in places like that. That’s just part of the job, get used to it. But I am claustrophobic, so that can be a challenge some days.”
Q: Any interesting on-the-job stories?
“We do get a lot of wildlife around here, and so that can be entertaining sometimes, interacting with them. We get great horned owls that like to nest in the gates at the nav lock, and they get really aggressive. They’ve actually tried to knock guys off the gates, so that’s kind of scary. Usually it’s only if you try and go out there at night. When I was an apprentice still, I was here working with one of the journeymen on nightshift and we had an alarm come in, so they went over to check on it. They had to walk across the gates and the owl came and hit him in the back. Luckily, they had a hard hat and they had a hoodie on underneath it. So, it punched a hole through their hoodie and dropped them to their knees on the gates, but they were okay.”
“One of the things about this job is that you don’t just get to take time off. If everybody goes home because of bad weather, you’re going to be here and you’re going to be expected to show up regardless of the conditions. I know I’ve stayed here overnight just because I knew I might make it home, but I wouldn’t make it back. … They had heavy ice storms and we had the line drop and the plant went black, which causes us to do quite a bit of running. Got it restored, they then made a mistake, somebody in the switchyards, … they dropped the line a second time, so we hustled back, restored everything again. And during that time we also had two minor floods where water was coming up in the drain gallery because we had pumps that were not in good condition and were not keeping up with things. Like I said, it can go from zero to 60 very fast.”
“My dad is an electrician at a paper mill. He retired last year and I got to bring him out here to show him the dam, which he thought was amazing. He thought this was a cool job. I brought him down into one of the dark, deep galleries on the deepest part of the dam you can get to. It was called the grout gallery. And my dad said he was getting the willies and he had to get out of there as soon as possible. I thought that was kind of funny.”
Q: What is one piece of advice you would give someone pursuing the same career?
“Just try it. I think a lot of people are deterred more from even starting and never trying, so it never hurts to try it. If it works out its fantastic for you, and if it doesn’t then you can always go back to something different.”
“I would tell them, if I had to do it again, because there’s a possibility of them getting rid of these types of jobs or combining them with electrical, I would go electrical. And when you come in, you’re really tempted to be part of a gang. Don’t. Concentrate on simply learning your job. People will come and people will go, and at the end of the day this is a job you want to be good at. Because what you’re doing is important and it can be very dangerous.”
“My advice to someone who wants to this job is never assume anything. Get your facts straight, ask questions. If you don’t know something, definitely do the research. Also, if you make a mistake, own up to it. Period. It’s very frustrating sometimes when you know someone made a mistake and you kind of think you know what happened, but you have no one who owns up to it. … People will respect you if you own up to your mistakes. No one’s perfect.”
“It's important for people to know I knew nothing ten years ago. I seriously knew nothing. Like I said, people are everything. People are important. Relationships are important to me. … You have to have that out here. There’s no possible way anyone can remember every single thing. You have to help each other, use your different strengths to get the job done.”