Teaching Upward

Virginia towns collaborate on a seminar to help local government leaders understand water and wastewater systems — and appreciate the people who run them
Teaching Upward
The “Water & Wastewater Treatment 101 For Administrative Personnel” class promoted education and interchange for public officials who oversee treatment operations.

Wastewater operators’ education initiatives usually reach out — to students and adults in their communities.

Two Virginia towns recently took a different approach, reaching up with a one-day class for the elected and appointed officials who make the key decisions and hold the purse strings. The results were immediate and positive: The typical response from attendees was, “I had no idea how much was involved!” says John Hricko, plant manager at the Town of Crewe Wastewater Treatment Plant and course instructor.

The program, on Dec. 14, was sponsored by the Town of Crewe and the nearby Town of Farmville, which donated its South Street Conference Center for the event and provided breakfast and lunch for the 30 participants, representing 17 area communities.

“Two words — team and education — are the miracle drugs in building an effective, cohesive effort, from municipal administration, through the collection system maintenance people, to the treatment plant operations staffs,” says Hricko. The “Water & Wastewater Treatment 101 For Administrative Personnel” class dished out a healthy dose of both.

“It gave everyone a better understanding of what’s involved in water and wastewater treatment plant operations,” says Gerry Spates, Town of Farmville manager. “It’s not just a case where you build a plant and everything’s fine.”


Idea takes shape

The idea for the class grew out of a casual conversation about water and wastewater between Hricko and Crewe town manager Wade Walker. “At the end, Wade said it would be really neat if there were a wastewater class for dummies — something very basic and not aimed at people who are already in the profession,” Hricko recalls.

“He put the idea in my head. My wife, Lisa, works as administrative assistant and clerk for the Town of Farmville. I asked her to speak to Gerry Spates, to see if this was something he would be interested in. He said, ‘Absolutely.’ Gerry was extremely generous. He provided the facility and all the food and drinks for the breakfast and lunch.”

Lisa Hricko, being a municipal clerk, had a mailing list of the other area clerks, and she sent out a flyer announcing the class to about 30 communities within a 50-mile radius that had water or wastewater treatment plants.

The 30 spaces in the class filled up almost immediately. “We had a great, diverse group,” says Hricko. “We had town managers, county administrators, support staff, directors of public works, public works supervisors, utility directors, water authority board members, town council members, all in attendance.”


Speaking the language

Hricko, who holds Class I water and wastewater licenses and in his spare time is an instructor for the American Association of Water & Wastewater Professionals, made an immediate impression on attendees by placing a jar test apparatus at the entry to the meeting room with a jar of influent and a jar of effluent side by side. “They were amazed when they saw it,” he recalls. “They said, ‘You mean we discharge water like this when it comes in like that?’”

To connect with his audience, Hricko acknowledged that community leaders faced extreme budget pressure and needed their plant operators to do “more and more with less and less.” He also stressed the need to make sure operators have the resources to do their jobs well. “I told them that treatment really doesn’t work by itself, and if your people aren’t properly trained and equipped, then the operators aren’t running the plant — the plant is running the operators. That kind of plant is going to have trouble, and it’s going to be something major.”

He walked the audience step by step through the treatment process, spending most of the time on biological treatment processes. “My message was that to successfully treat wastewater, it comes down to one thing: Controlling the environment. If we control the environment, we can manipulate the bugs to do the job we want them to do.”

On the water side, Hricko described the basic processes of coagulation and flocculation and emphasized the consequences of having a mechanical breakdown that compromises treatment — up to and including dumping storage tanks or flushing hundreds of thousands of gallons of water onto the ground after it has been treated at substantial cost.

Another point of emphasis was training: “Regulations and compliance issues get tougher every year, and if you don’t stay on top of it, in a very short time it has passed you by. If you expect quality results from your people, you’ve got to give them all the tools. Quality training, even if it costs money, is well worth it. It’s an investment that pays off big in the long run.”


Immediate impact

Hricko was surprised at how soon the message took hold. “From the very first break, they were astounded,” he recalls. “It was an eye-opening experience for all of them. Afterward, I got comments from the attendees saying how much more they appreciated what their people do. And within a couple days I had operators calling me saying, ‘Whatever you taught them, thanks. Since they came back, they’re looking at what we do in a totally different light.’”

Spates adds, “There was a lot of information about what the operators do. Our town has seven operators, but as administrators we don’t see what they deal with day to day and all the responsibility they have. John did an excellent job with the presentation. He showed a lot of illustrations and presented the information in very interesting ways.”

Hricko sees an opportunity for similar courses to help bring together decision makers and hands-on operations staff. “By including these two vital groups in every success the plant enjoys, you very quickly evolve the realization that operators do not hold an ‘us against them’ attitude toward the administration,” he says. “In turn, this inclusion makes the statement to the operators that without the help and support of administration and maintenance, we would be hard-pressed to find success.

“Educating people in administration and maintenance about how much is involved in wastewater treatment is as vital in building a team as are the ‘pats on the back.’ Once the process begins, the respect gained by people outside the day-to-day of treatment is measurable and real.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.