It's About Improving Infrastructure, Encouraging Employees and Communicating With Customers for This Ohio Operator

Kevin Zebrowski pushes himself and encourages his team to excel in every area of maintenance in his Northeast Ohio district.

It's About Improving Infrastructure, Encouraging Employees and Communicating With Customers for This Ohio Operator

From left: Tony Reese and Alfred Harrison, field technician operators; David Glisic, sewer system and maintenance operation supervisor; and Zebrowski, with the Cleveland skyline, next to a Vactor 2100 Plus combination sewer cleaner.

Kevin Zebrowski is passionate about making things better. Over his career with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, he has focused on improving the wastewater infrastructure, encouraging his employees, communicating with customers and safeguarding the environment, especially Lake Erie.

When out of the office, he’s devoted to the success of his children. “I try to make sure that everything we’re doing is for the greater good,” says Zebrowski, recently named superintendent of Maintenance Services at the district. “It’s what I do.”

His attitude and achievements haven’t gone unnoticed. He received the Ohio Water Environment Association’s William D. Hatfield Award in 2017. It was an honor richly deserved, according to Debbie Houdeshell, water reclamation facilities engineer with the City of Canton, Ohio, who nominated him.

“Kevin continually works on improving the situation, whether with employee morale or the process,” she says. “He strives for excellence, and I respect that in him. He truly cares about people and what his team is achieving.”

Early interest

Zebrowski’s passion for clean water began when he majored in environmental policy and analysis at Bowling Green State University. His degree had an emphasis in water-quality management and covered the political science aspect of clean water. After graduating, he worked as an industrial pretreatment operator in the private sector; the assignment gave him perspective that was useful when he joined the district in 2004.

There, he took a position inspecting industrial facilities, some of which he had operated in his earlier job. After two years, he moved to the Southerly Wastewater Treatment Center (736 mgd design, 125 mgd average) just outside Cleveland as a unit process manager. He worked in operations and developed an expertise in lift stations, preliminary, primary and secondary treatment.

Next he served as assistant superintendent for operations at the district’s Easterly Wastewater Treatment Plant, where he gained experience preparing regulatory reports, budgets, facilities plans and projects, and coordinating maintenance and training. He returned to Southerly in 2011 as assistant superintendent of maintenance and after seven years became superintendent.

Multiple duties

In addition to its three large treatment plants, the district maintains 318 miles of sewer interceptors that accept flow from more than 3,500 miles of local sewers. His team also takes care of 750 regulators to divert or re-divert combined and separated sewers, eight odor-control facilities, 12 pump stations, 10 combined sewer overflow netting facilities (for floatables), and two deep tunnels that can store 76 million and 60 million gallons.

Zebrowski and his team of 87 employees support all these facilities and their operations. Specifically, they are responsible for sewer system maintenance and operation, systems integration, building maintenance, fleet services and administrative services.

Zebrowski says the new position made sense to him because of his years of experience with the district’s treatment facilities, buildings and collections systems, as well as regulatory requirements, planning and budgeting. “I appreciated the opportunity to move to Maintenance Services,” he says. “It really rounds me out.”

With such a wide range of experience and positions, it’s not surprising that Zebrowski’s management style includes “a lot of walking around.” It’s his way of getting a feel for what’s going on in the department, and it helps make the employee experience better. “As you move up, you can lose touch with what’s really happening at the front line,” he says. He practices what he calls the Platinum Rule: Treat employees as they want to be treated.

“I try to be available to the staff,” Zebrowski says. “I try to lead by example, and I don’t expect anyone to do what I wouldn’t do. I have high expectations for them, and they have high expectations for me. I get out into the field to be side by side with the staff when I can. I’m part of the team. We’re all in this together.

“As a manager, you’re continuously learning. New developments. New ways to refine or enhance processes. In the long term, you want to keep your staff current. They’re the next level of leadership in the organization. The day you think you know it all, that’s the day you should retire.”

Hard and soft technology

Zebrowski believes technology has improved wastewater treatment, but he doesn’t give up on the human component: “We’re now able to leverage technology to enable us to address issues more quickly. We have access to real-time data. We’ve reduced our response time to overflows and alarms and minimized the pollutants we release into our lakes and rivers.”

Zebrowski notes that operators generally take to new technology. “That’s a positive thing. It provides them more opportunity to monitor equipment and processes.” But he also sees another challenge inherent in the technical workplace: “We risk a loss of manual skills in our field, like troubleshooting.”

As he explains it, when technology fails, it’s still essential to maintain the human senses of hearing, touch, sight and smell — to be able to determine when a pump is running harder or warmer or something doesn’t smell right. “Technology is good for real-time data and response, but we need to maintain the manual operational skill sets,” he says. “We don’t want to lose those skills as we leverage technology.”

He credits the Ohio Water Environment Association, the Operator Training Committee of Ohio, and the district’s wastewater plant operator-in-training apprentice program for helping maintain the hands-on skills, but he notes that the issue becomes more and more critical as tenured employees retire.

“They have a lot of knowledge,” he says. “They might know exactly where a specific valve is, even though we only use that valve once a year.” He has tried to obtain as much knowledge as he can before it “gets lost in the shuffle” as employees approach retirement. He encourages others to do the same.

Specifically, the district uses tablets and GIS technology to capture knowledge before it is lost, especially in the collections system: “The district has a lot of assets. We are implementing an operational readiness program, making sure we have standard operating procedures for common practices across all our facilities. We make sure they are updated and correct and are available anytime. If you’ve got veterans retiring, grab as much knowledge as you can, and get it documented.”

Improving outreach

Another way to make things better is to connect with customers, Zebrowski believes. He is a big advocate of public outreach. “We cover 355 square miles and serve a million residents in Cleveland and 61 suburbs,” he says. “We need to let our ratepayers know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, especially as federal funding has disappeared and water and sewer rates are going up. They need to know what their money is being used for.”

During his years at the Southerly treatment center, he helped host about 30 tours a year, as well as an annual open house in September that showcased all departments and activities: engineering, operations and maintenance, construction, watershed management. “We’ve had as many as 3,000 people go through the plant to see the lab and the treatment processes. I remember one elderly gentleman who remarked the water was so clean we probably weren’t charging enough for it.”

While the district follows conventional outreach methods like attending community meetings and working with stakeholders and local universities, it does the unconventional, too. Bike rides, for example.

“The district has reached out to local bikers and bike clubs and sponsored bike tours of the treatment facilities,” Zebrowski says. “We held two last year and three this year. We divide the group into about 20 bikers, and we tour the entire plant. It’s a 5.2-mile bike ride, and it gets pretty intensive. We stop at 11 points and describe the treatment processes. They really get to see stuff — the thickeners, the outfall. It takes about an hour and 45 minutes.”

Industry perceptions

Perhaps as a result of such outreach, the public perception of the clean-water industry and its professionals is getting better, Zebrowski feels. Where once wastewater might have been perceived as a dirty job, growth in technology, education and the importance of clean water have changed that, he says.

“There’s a lot we can still do in our industry, but it is now seen as a profession; a good profession with viable positions that make great careers. We have a lot of good momentum. Our roles are highly respected today and extend to the wider community. In my position, I have a greater impact on the quality of the water for the people in our area and those who visit the region.”

Welcome recognition

The William D. Hatfield Award is presented for outstanding performance and professionalism, especially in operational improvement, public relations and dissemination of information about advancements in the field. Nominator Houdeshell says she can’t think of anyone more deserving.

“Kevin is a great individual and terrific operator,” she says. “He treats all employees with respect, and he expects the same. He cares about all parts of the process and treatment plant, not just his area. You see the professionalism in everything he does.”

Zebrowski says the award surprised him: “I feel I am just doing the best I can every day for my customers and for the environment.” In other words, just making things better.

Success on the court

Kevin Zebrowski played three sports at West Geauga High School, including basketball. So when his three daughters wanted to play hoops in grade school, he took an interest. And, as in every other area in his life, he worked to improve the situation.

At the time, 11 years ago, there was no girls’ program. So he worked to get one started and ended up serving on the board of directors of the West Geauga Women’s Traveling Program for nine years. Working on the association took time and effort, but in the end, he got to watch his girls learn the game and evolve into some pretty good players.

“My oldest girl didn’t get to play her senior year because of a knee injury from soccer,” he says. But his middle daughter started on the high school varsity team as a freshman last year. His youngest daughter, a freshman this year, also has a good shot at making the varsity.

“It was energizing,” Zebrowski says. “It got the kids off the phone and doing something athletic.” While he’s no longer on the board, the association he helped start is going strong.


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