One Professional’s Devotion to Training Helps Water Operators Earn New Levels of Certification

To Joe Cribbs, nothing is more satisfying than seeing water operators he taught reach new levels of professional certification

One Professional’s Devotion to Training Helps Water Operators Earn New Levels of Certification

Cribbs helps train and mentor his own team members, like analysis technician Mark Marston (right) as well as operators around Kansas. 

Like many people in the world of water, Joe Cribbs didn’t come into the field straight out of high school. In fact, the way he got into water was “kind of roundabout.”

Cribbs is an online analyzer technician with WaterOne in Johnson County in northeastern Kansas. The analyzers he works with and maintains provide critical data for process control and compliance for WaterOne treatment facilities.

The analyzers look at pH, conductivity, hardness, alkalinity, turbidity, ammonia, fluoride and other parameters. Most of them report data to a SCADA system in the raw water control room for the three water treatment facilities run by WaterOne — which, with 425,000 customers, is the largest water utility in Kansas.

Cribbs grew up in Lawrence, where he went to elementary and high school and met his wife of 43 years. In 1980, he went to work as a boiler operator at the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant near De Soto. He got his early water treatment experience there, treating boiler water.

The plant shut down in 1993, and Cribbs found himself needing a job. So he went to work at the City of De Soto that same year as a water and wastewater operator.

More Training

Cribbs worked at De Soto for several years as he progressed to water and wastewater superintendent. Feeling a need for more training in the water field, he began taking classes at nearby Fort Scott Community College, earning an associate degree in environmental water technology. He also earned his Kansas Class IV certifications in water, wastewater, collections system and distribution system.

The degree and certifications “really opened the door for me, and I eventually started teaching for Fort Scott,” Cribbs says. He found the Fort Scott program both broad and deep, providing good preparation for him. “It’s a growing industry,” he says. “When I started, there were a lot of middle-aged and older people in the courses. Now I’m seeing people in their late 20s to mid-40s. They’re younger than when I first got into it.”

By 2003, Cribbs was feeling a bit of wanderlust and moved with his family to Florida. There he learned about reverse osmosis, among other things, but he didn’t find good training: “What opportunities they had were few and far between. People had a hard time passing the certification exams.”

Friends Helping Friends

Florida did not offer certification reciprocity with Kansas, so Cribbs had to take his certification exams again. When he passed his certification the first time he took the exam, friends were surprised. They had taken the exams three and four times and still not passed.

So Cribbs started helping friends prepare for their exams. He moved back to Kansas a few years later, and his Florida experience helped nudge him toward getting involved with training and the Kansas Section of the American Water Works Association. He’s been a member of the Northeast Kansas AWWA Operator Training Committee for four years now, along with about a dozen other water people. The committee meets once a month and produces about five training workshops a year.

“When I first started out, I didn’t intend to get that involved in training,” Cribbs says. “But I enjoy interacting with people, and I saw the need for the training after my experience in Florida. One of the most fulfilling things to me is when an operator who has been struggling to learn can take that next step and pass that next certification.”

Although it doesn’t happen often, occasionally someone will come up and thank him for help in climbing the certification ladder: “It’s fulfilling to me to hear them say that.”

Earning Recognition

The Kansas Section of the AWWA recognized his contribution, naming him a winner last year of the Operator Meritorious Service Award, presented at the annual conference of the Kansas Section of the AWWA and the Kansas Water Environment Association. One criterion for the award is that the winner must demonstrate special efforts in training Kansas treatment plant operators.

Cribbs and his fellow training committee members put together workshops in different places around the state, particularly in northeastern Kansas. He and a few other members have traveled extensively, volunteering their time to bring training to operators. Sometimes, committee members do presentations, but they often bring in subject matter experts from outside Kansas.

In addition to his duties with WaterOne and the Operator Training Committee, Cribbs teaches at Fort Scott. “Because we cover several different areas, I stay busy studying to keep up my knowledge of the industry,” he says. The program includes maintenance, water and wastewater treatment, utility management, collections and distribution. The college offers 16-week courses and two-day workshops.

Cribbs lives in Eudora and commutes to his job at WaterOne in Johnson County. In his spare time, he likes to run. “About 10 years ago, I noticed I was putting on weight and was out of shape,” he says. So he started to run again. He has done several half-marathons and recently completed his first full marathon since he was in his 30s.

During his layoff from running, he coached Little League and did other “dad things” with his wife and four children. He also has 11 grandchildren. Cribbs is active in his church as well, where he’s head of the men’s ministry. He’s planning a fishing trip for the men’s group this summer. Maybe that’s another teaching opportunity.

Making music

Besides heading the men’s group at his church, Joe Cribbs is a musician. He plays banjo and guitar for worship on Sundays. “I have a lot of fun with that, and I enjoy being part of that worship team,” he says. “We play contemporary Christian music, the kind you’ll hear on almost any Christian radio station.”

He got his start in music as a teenager. He wanted a guitar and lessons when he was 14, but his mom told him they couldn’t afford it. Then she gave him an old ukulele and told him if he learned to play it, she’d see about getting him guitar lessons.

So he learned to play that ukulele — “three or four songs” — and his mom kept the bargain. With his lessons, he learned rhythm guitar and bass, and he played in a gospel group led by his aunt and uncle. Now his church group wants him to play lead guitar. Cribbs chuckles. “I’ve never done that, so it’s pushing me. I’ve just got to get those fingers working.”


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