Cool in Crises

In dealing with system issues and facing down major storms, Robert Longo shows quiet confidence while building an award-winning career in Bristol, Conn.
Cool in Crises
Rob Longo records system pressures at the department’s Witches Rock Pump Station.

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When Ernest Hemingway defined courage as “grace under pressure,” he might have been talking about Robert “Rob” Longo, superintendent of the Bristol (Conn.) Water Department, who has stood up to Mother Nature’s wrath to keep clean water flowing to his city’s 62,000 residents.

Tropical storms, freak blizzards, torrential rain and tornados have marked Longo’s four-year tenure as superintendent. In that time, he and his team have averted catastrophe and worked side by side with the mayor, water commissioners and state Department of Public Health (DPH) to identify problems and fix them with minimum disruption.

In 2013, Longo’s cool head and confident leadership earned him the Certified Operator Public Health Drinking Water Merit Award from the DPH. The award recognizes an operator for exceptional work practices and contributions to the health and safety of drinking water. It was the first time the award has been presented since 2008 — a highlight for Longo, a Connecticut native who has spent 20 years in water business.

The right moves

After graduating from Eastern Connecticut State University with a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences, Longo worked for Valley Water Systems, a private utility, starting as a water meter reader and construction operator, becoming a true jack-of-all-trades, and learning the business. He also earned certifications as a Class 2 Water Treatment Operator, Class 3 Distribution System Operator, Cross-Connection Inspector and Backflow Tester.

“I worked my way up through the utility to construction manager and then went to work for the parent company as vice president of contract operations,” Longo says. “Coming to Bristol in 2006 was a good career move, gaining expertise and working my way up the ladder. Besides, I was doing a lot of traveling in contract operations, all over New England. Having a family, I wanted to do less of that and get more involved in the water industry, managing large projects.”

Before taking his current position, Longo served three years as assistant superintendent of the department’s distribution system. Today, he supervises the entire Water Department, comprising 36 employees, and oversees water treatment, distribution, management of 5,000 acres of watershed property and office administration.

He’s responsible for Bristol’s 12 mgd surface water treatment plant, which draws from six reservoirs and uses a conventional coagulation, flocculation and sedimentation process. The 21-year-old facility has undergone minimal upgrades, except for a new Wonderware SCADA system (Invensys) five years ago and a switch last year from chlorine gas to sodium hypochlorite disinfection. As a medium-sized system with 18,000 service connections (ESPN as its most famous customer), the department has had its share of challenges, some typical and others nearly disastrous.

Crises abound

“In 2008 we had a lead and copper exceedance issue,” says Longo. “We determined it was coming from new household plumbing as the result of a spike in kitchen and bathroom remodeling in 2006 and 2007. We went in and did repeat samples in all of the locations and determined that the lead wasn’t coming from the water main or water service or even the internal plumbing, but from the recently installed fixtures. We tested other faucets in each house and found no lead present in the samples. Since those fixtures were replaced, we haven’t had any similar incidents and have stayed within state and federal guidelines.”

Storms are a different story — like Tropical Storm Irene, which crashed through the Northeast in August 2011. The result: a washout that left a gaping hole 80 feet wide, 100 feet deep and 400 feet long on Farrell Avenue, leaving of one of Bristol’s main water transmission lines exposed and in danger of collapsing. The 1950s cast-iron pipe hung across the expanse, its valves so old it couldn’t be shut down.

“If that line had let go, it would have washed all of the water out of our plant, something like 2.5 million gallons, down into the center of Bristol,” says Mayor Art Ward, who called his two terms “a stormy administration” and praised Longo for his unflappability. “Someone must have been watching over us because everything held sturdy. We were on pins and needles, to say the least. Rob handled everything calmly and efficiently, like he always does, making sure things got done the right way.”

While grateful for the praise, Longo is quick to credit his employees and contractors for helping to avert disaster, citing their dedication and willingness to work around the clock to keep the area safe and the water flowing: “It was a total team effort. Our crews worked straight through, about 80 hours. They installed two insertion valves to shut the line down and put in a bypass line to supply a minimum amount of water. They made all the difference.”

Scary storm

A similar commitment paid off big when Winter Storm Alfred slammed Bristol on Halloween 2011, knocking out power to all major facilities in the city for six to 10 days. During that time, a tree fell on a bypass line that Longo’s crews had installed on Farrell Avenue as a temporary water supply, and ruptured it. That raised two challenges: maintaining water levels within the distribution system without the feed and determining the best way to reconstruct the road around it.

Longo and his team worked with some of the 45 engineers from the Department of Public Health responsible for maintaining water quality to come up with a reconstruction plan. All the while, they continuously operated pressure-regulating valves, wells and surface water facilities to maintain adequate water levels. In July 2012, they got the road and water main back in service. Later that year, Super Storm Sandy came through and caused power outages at Bristol’s water plant, requiring backup generator power for 10 days.

Longo describes overcoming such obstacles as a team effort involving the Water Department, the DPH, the city, other utilities and associations such as the Connecticut Section of AWWA. Yet Lori Mathieu, DPH drinking water section chief, cites Longo’s penchant for coordination as a big factor.

“I’ve worked with Rob as long as he’s been water superintendent,” says Mathieu, a 25-year DPH veteran. “He has reached out to us and fostered a strong relationship, and he has worked really hard to make sure drinking water requirements are addressed properly. He’s very proactive when it comes to resolving issues or making system improvements. For us, that’s a tremendous help.”

Public health link

Forging such a partnership means recognizing the vital link between water and public health, according to Mathieu. Water facilities often are considered just another utility, like cable, phone or electricity, but water is the only one that people consume and that can affect health directly. Ensuring delivery of a quality product is a significant job in which a lead operator or superintendent plays a major role that often goes unrecognized.

Connecticut has more than 2,200 certified water operators and more than 2,500 public water systems, of which Bristol is one of the largest. The city’s homes, businesses and industries rely on high-quality water. When problems occur, they raise major concerns.

“People often don’t make the connection between water and health until there’s a crisis; otherwise they take it for granted,” says Ward. “When issues come up, such as a water main break or E. coli outbreak, then water gets attention and everyone wants to know who’s responsible for ensuring it’s safe 24/7.

“Rob’s leadership is such that people here trust their water a great deal. He’s very good at keeping everyone informed, providing public notices about hydrant flushing or saying when there might be a disruption. He has built great credibility with those he works with and the public.”

Self-effacing Longo thanks the DPH and Ward for their cooperation. DPH personnel support Water Department improvement initiatives and have conducted training sessions for DPH staff at Bristol Water Department facilities. Likewise, Ward has been a strong advocate, working closely with Longo and his staff to ensure the safety of the water system and authorizing a $7 million operating budget to maintain strong performance and excellent customer service.

Communication is key

Supporters such as Mathieu and Ward are testament to Longo’s inclusive management style, which features open communications with regulators, city officials, staff members and customers. For example, he regularly takes the five-member Board of Water Commissioners to water main breaks or to observe system repairs, believing it’s good for staff morale to see commissioners in the field. When the washout occurred during Tropical Storm Irene, the mayor, water commissioners and DPH staff were with Longo and his crews in the dark assessing the situation.

Internally, Longo makes sure his office personnel get to observe water meter changes or service connections firsthand so they understand how the department interacts with the public. And, when new employees are hired, Longo personally gives them a tour of all the facilities and explains what they do. That makes newcomers feel part of the team.

On a typical day, Longo arrives at 6:30 a.m., meets with Michael Lynch, assistant superintendent of construction, and Joseph Pagliaruli, assistant superintendent of metering and cross connections, and then with Glenn Guerriero, chief treatment plant operator. After that, he reviews plans for the day and meets with Joyce DeFelippi, office manager. Later, he meets with regulators and city officials. At times, he gets together with city attorneys and, if he’s lucky, gets outside to inspect facilities.

Progress brings opportunities

Longo is pleased with the progress he has made over the past four years. One of his team’s projects is scanning and digitizing maps, several dating back to the 1800s, and putting them on tablet computers used by field personnel. That was a 2 1/2-year effort. Another involved setting up an in-house geographic information system while working with the city to get a full-fledged version.

It’s all in a day’s work for Longo, who lives in Newington with his wife Romana, 10-year-old son RJ and 6-year-old daughter Isabella. On an industry level, Longo is a member of the Board of Directors for the AWWA Connecticut Section (CTAWWA) and cochair of its education committee. He’s also involved with the Atlantic States Rural Water and Wastewater Association. In his spare time, he’s a fly fisherman and youth football coach.

Despite the challenges, Longo has no intention of leaving Bristol and remains committed to the city and its residents: “Being a municipality, people sometimes think we work for the city, but we’re a little different. We’re a utility and our customers come first and foremost. When there’s no water for the customers, we can’t leave a job site and say we’ll come back tomorrow. We do what it takes to serve the public.”


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