Q&A With the Dual Operator: Masters of Water and Wastewater Treatment

In some rural areas or small systems, operators take on both sides of the water system. In this Q&A, a couple of dual operators, who are certified in water and wastewater treatment, talk about the challenges.
Q&A With the Dual Operator: Masters of Water and Wastewater Treatment

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Wastewater treatment operators face various challenges when performing their duties. Between the mechanical hazards posed by equipment, the infectious hazards posed by process waters, chemical hazards and exposure to weather extremes, a wastewater treatment operator must be vigilant at all times. Water system operators also face similar challenges, though they are on the opposite spectrum of water use.

But what about operators who work in both water supply and wastewater treatment? It’s a unique situation often encountered by operators in small systems and rural areas. Here’s some insight from two of these operators.

Q: What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

Alicia Jernigan, Milton, Florida: Surprisingly, the part of my job I most enjoy is wastewater treatment. The science of microbiology is fascinating, and there is always something new and challenging to learn. Every facility is different, and each day I discover something new that I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

Tyler Nelson, Mammoth Community Water District, California: I feel the most comfortable operating the water treatment side of things probably because I have worked in water treatment longer than I have worked wastewater treatment. I also like the aspect of water treatment because you are usually in more than one place and moving throughout the day.

Q: What are the greatest challenges to being a double-duty operator?

Jernigan: A real challenge here in Florida, obviously is working in the heat. It can easily reach temperatures in the triple digits with heat indexes of 110 degrees. I try to keep myself hydrated and do my most strenuous work — such as handling lime  — in the coolest part of the day.

Nelson: One of the biggest challenges is remembering the maximum contaminant levels for each side you work. It can be a lot to remember and hard to get used to all of the different plants and processes since we have four water plants and one wastewater plant. Also, planning weekly tasks — while being mindful of any negative effect on either system — can be challenging.

Q: What about scheduling? How do you organize your duties?

Jernigan: A well-staffed facility and shift scheduling helps. We discharge our effluent into the Blackwater River, so we are required by our governing agency to be staffed 16 hours a day. This means we have two eight-hour shifts per day, running 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. We have a rotating schedule that requires working every fourth weekend and one Monday through Friday of 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. per month.

Nelson: I work the water side Monday and Thursday, and the wastewater side Tuesday and Friday and run lab for both sides on Wednesdays. I also take standby every four weeks on a rotating schedule and do wastewater standby on a case-by-case basis.

Q: How did you end up working in wastewater and water treatment?

Jernigan: I got my start in the industry after the restaurant I managed closed. However, I wasn’t new to the industry because my grandfather, husband and son had all had excelled in the field. My grandfather was a chemical engineer and a wastewater treatment plant operator at a chemical plant here in Florida, and my husband and son are both contract wastewater operators. In fact, my husband has an A water and an A wastewater certification, which is the highest level available in Florida. He has been in the industry for 30 years.

Nelson: I started out in the Air Force as utility systems maintenance, which is pretty much a glorified plumber, and worked my way to becoming a water treatment operator. The base I worked at was in need of more wastewater operators, so I started my OIT and passed my Grade II wastewater test.

What about you? If you're a dual operator, we'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment below, and tell us about your most unique challenges, the best part of the job or your scheduling. 


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