Charlie's Angels Make Their Mark in Operations Challenge at WEFTEC

Four women from a South Carolina plant crash the male-dominated party at the 2018 Water Environment Federation Operations Challenge.

Charlie's Angels Make Their Mark in Operations Challenge at WEFTEC

Charlie’s Angels team members (from left) Sarah Hickman, Melissa Engle, Morgan Greathouse and Candace Mathis competed in the state and national Water Environment Federation Operations Challenge for the Columbia (South Carolina) Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant. Their logo is the smiley face painted on the plant’s methane storage tank.

Women have competed on Operations Challenge teams for years. The Water Environment Federation’s 2018 Technical Exhibition and Conference marked the first time an all-female team slugged it out on the national stage.

David Wiman, superintendent of the Columbia (South Carolina) Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant, worked with Sarah Hickman, lab manager, to form Charlie’s Angels in 2017. Hickman was joined by Melissa Engle, lab analyst; Candace Mathis, a Class A (highest) operator; and Morgan Greathouse, a Class D operator.

“We didn’t have to strong-arm anyone to join, but we didn’t have to beat them away either,” says Engle, 2017 Water Environment Association of South Carolina Laboratory Analyst of the Year and team captain. “Just the four of us were interested.”

Regular practice

The four didn’t realize how seriously operators took the competition until they attended their first meeting and heard teams arguing over the previous year’s competition. “They were intense,” Engle says. “At that point, we knew we were in over our heads a little, but we were determined to forge ahead.”

They practiced twice a week before work; they had a mock version of the computer simulator used in the process control event to test their ability to control a plant. Charlie’s Angels debuted at the 2017 Brawl at the Beach, the South Carolina Environmental Conference Operations Challenge in Myrtle Beach.

“We finished second in the process control event but were seventh overall out of eight teams,” Engle says. “In 2018, we placed third out of four state teams and qualified for the nationals.”

The 2018 Brawl at the Beach introduced the maintenance event sponsored by KSB, which supplied a simulated pump station, control panel, and water-filled tank with an energized Amarex KRT submersible pump for use in the competition. Two company representatives saw Charlie’s Angels compete and collaborated with Charli Matthews, CEO of Empowering Brands, to sponsor the team’s travel expenses.

Ready, steady, go!

Only Engle had years of competitive experience and knew how to maintain her composure. She had skated as the jammer on a roller derby team for seven years before becoming its coach in 2015. “We had one member with a severe case of nerves, but once the whistle blew, she held up well,” Engle says.

The team found the collections system event the most physically challenging. “Usually we can outthink what we can’t outmuscle, but even with practice, we couldn’t break the 45-second barrier when sawing through the pipe,” Engle says. “The guys cut it in 10 seconds.” To compensate for lower muscle mass, the women traded off as soon as the person sawing began to tire.

The process control event was the most mentally challenging for Engle and Hickman. “We have the math and lab tests down, but are not familiar enough with daily plant operations to know which valve to open in which situation,” Engle says. “Although we studied as if for a licensing exam, we really needed each other’s knowledge to get through that section.”

Cheering section

As Charlie’s Angels streaked through the maintenance event, they hit a heart-stopping moment: The team ahead of them had cross-threaded the pump impeller, and it wouldn’t budge. The judges replaced the pump and reset the clock. “Starting over was unsettling,” Engle says. “Our second run wasn’t as fast as the first, but we were grateful it wasn’t the disaster it could have been.”

The team placed 18th out of 36 teams in Division 2 and won the Best Fan Support Award as determined by team ballots. “We made signs and inflated lab gloves for balloons and handed them to people who rooted for us,” Engle says. “A former professional cheerleader was in the crowd, so we recruited him to lead cheers. The crowd was loud and enthusiastic.”

Charlie’s Angels want to stay together and compete for as long as possible. “Being on the first all-female team is fun and exciting, but we hope other women will follow suit,” Engle says. “We don’t want to be alone in the future.”


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.