Brian McDade Has a Passion for Water Treatment and a Calling to Help Others

At first, water treatment was just a job for Brian McDade. It soon became a career and a calling to help others progress and excel.

Brian McDade Has a Passion for Water Treatment and a Calling to Help Others

Brian McDade runs an alkalinity test on a sample.

The water business was an accident for Brian McDade.

“For most of my life, I wanted to obtain a psychology degree,” says McDade, an operator at the Macon (Georgia) Water Authority’s Frank C. Amerson Jr. Water Treatment Plant.

He spent some time at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville. After schooling, he worked for a company repairing power plants. “That was interesting work. You learned how to weld,” he says. But it wasn’t reliable. People would work for two months, get laid off, then get called back for a few more months.

During one of those layoffs, while exercising with a cousin, doing bicep curls, he mentioned that he would prefer a steady situation. “Great,” said the cousin. “My husband needs help at the water company he works for.”

So McDade started out as a meter reader for a private water company in northern Georgia. In 2012, after surviving a few rounds of layoffs in the wake of the recession, his day came. For a few months, he had no work and no prospects, but he had gained experience in the water industry and liked it.

Opportunity knocks

In 2013 his wife, Jill, saw an ad for an operator job at the Macon authority. The deadline to apply was past, but she sent his application anyway. “I didn’t have a license and knew I wouldn’t get the job,” McDade says. “We had savings we were living off of, and my wife worked.” 

Despite his doubts, he paid $600 for classes he needed to test for a Class 3 license, the lowest operator qualification in Georgia. Then the call came. He was asked to interview on a Monday; his wife found him a seat in a Class 3 exam session on the Saturday before. He did more than well on the test, and when he dropped the results on the desk on Monday, he had himself a job.

That was in 2013, and McDade likes his job. He really likes his job. “When I’m driving to work, I want to get there,” he says. “I’m more than happy to bore you to tears with everything about my job.” That attitude, and the performance behind it, earned him a 2019 Operator’s Meritorious Service Award from the Georgia Section of the American Water Works Association.

Productive commuting

His commute is about 40 miles, unusually long for the area where he lives, but it gives him a window for learning. If there is a theme to his career, that’s it. He uses the time to listen to audiobooks about microbiology and other water topics.

He found a good podcast about the periodic table that goes through each chemical element and talks about its properties. He likes that one, although he listens only to the sections about elements in water tests — aluminum, chlorine and fluorine, for example.

McDade’s continuous learning has had some practical advantages. One day he read about the 18-hour Colilert test for fecal coliform. A short time later, Gary McCoy, director of water operations, asked what he would do if the clear wells became contaminated. “I said, ‘I don’t know, turn on the recirculation pumps?’”

Then McDade mentioned the Colilert test, which McCoy didn’t know about. “He pointed at the lab supervisor and said, ‘Order this,’” McDade recalls. A few months later, operators discovered low pressure in a large portion of Macon and Bibb counties, and the authority issued its first-ever boil order. Because the Colilert test was on hand, the order was lifted six hours earlier than otherwise would have been possible: “I like running into a problem, tackling it and coming up with a solution.”

Customer care

The Amerson plant serves Macon and Bibb counties but is located in Jones County. In 1994, a massive flood covered Macon and destroyed the old water plant. The new plant sits on higher ground. “It would have to be a Biblical flood for this plant ever to be flooded,” McDade says.

There are always two operators on duty at the plant. Mornings are typically devoted to doing tests. One day an operator might work in the lab and the next day outside. After 4 p.m., customer calls to the water system’s business office are routed to the plant, and operators must add that work to their other tasks. That can be a challenge, yet if there’s a water main break in the middle of the night, customers need to be helped.

Every four hours, operators are expected to take a walk through the plant. They might see a leak and write a repair order. One day, while looking at the filter building, McDade started thinking about the backwash tank and how it was connected to the rest of the plant.

He discovered that in an emergency, a million gallons of potable water could be gravity-fed directly to the clear wells. With the city consuming up to 25 mgd, the backwash water would provide another hour of cushion.

Always asking

One thing McDade learned from McCoy is that when you’ve climbed up on the ladder of success, you lower a rope to help the people below. McDade recently mentored a new operator on the verge of testing for his Class 3 license: “He asks a lot of good questions. He’ll call me at my house, and I don’t mind.”

What convinced McCoy to hire McDade was learning that he had paid for his own licensing classes. “He was so proactive,” McCoy says. “I’ve never in my years of managing seen someone take it upon himself to get a certification without having a job. He used to get on my nerves because he asked every question trying to learn everything. That’s what I really respect.”

It was the same with making suggestions, like recommending the Colilert test. When the boil-water order went out, McCoy says it was McDade who remembered the test was on hand. No one on staff was trained to perform it, so McDade did it. “The president of the company was very impressed because that six hours made a big difference,” McCoy says. “All the businesses were down, and every minute a business is down, they’re losing money.”

Sometimes McDade’s ideas are not financially workable, yet sometimes they can be worked into a five-year plan. Other team members have seen his example and started to make their own suggestions.

Leading humbly

When McDade earned his Class 1 (highest) license, he wasn’t cocky. “He took every single thing he had learned and started training the operators,” McCoy says. “It wasn’t about, ‘Look what I did.’”

McCoy mentioned a testing program McDade started. The Amerson plant draws raw water from the Ocmulgee River, next to the plant property. On the other side is Javors Lucas Lake, 580 acres of protected water that’s available in cases of drought.

McCoy started the practice of opening the intake valves at the reservoir at intervals so lake water mixes with river water. He wanted to reduce the concentrations of manganese and other substances that accumulate in deeper water as lakes stratify. Operators would do this until the raw water characteristics were constant.

McDade questioned whether there was truly an effect out in the lake, and so he began his own analysis program. He went out in a boat, took samples at various depths, analyzed the samples and compiled all the data. “His research let us know if we had a lake turnover,” McCoy says.

Even though McDade leads without having a leadership title, he sees a future for himself that may include a position such as assistant plant director. But really, any water job will make him happy. He has found the place he needs to be.

Spotting future operators

One of the standard jobs at the Frank C. Amerson Jr. Water Treatment Plant is to host college classes. Macon, Georgia, is home to the campuses of Middle Georgia State University and Mercer University.

Usually the students coming to see the plant are in chemistry or microbiology. A visit to the plant shows them a practical application for the classroom work. When a class comes through, Brian McDade looks for the potential operator.

“There’s always one student in 20 or 30 who’s overly interested,” he says. “They’re asking a lot of questions and have that fascination in their eye.” He spends more time with those people and tells them it’s interesting work that pays well.

It doesn’t hurt that the plant helps sell the profession. The Amerson plant sits on 3,000 acres that includes the Javors Lucas Lake reservoir, with a buffer zone to protect the water quality. “I come in through the big gate and it’s not unusual to see 15 turkeys or 15 deer inside,” McDade says.


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