Giving thanks…for water dispatchers

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CAP water dispatcher at the control center

On Thursday, most Arizonans will partake in traditional Thanksgiving festivities – cooking, eating, spending time with family and watching football. For CAP water dispatchers, Thanksgiving is the same as any other day; the Control Center is fully staffed so system operations and water deliveries can function normally. The result is reliable water deliveries to all CAP’s water customers, no matter what day of the year it is.

Supervisor John Hussen has spent more than 20 years in the Control Center and said it’s a responsibility his team of 12 dispatchers take very seriously.

“We literally operate everything on the system,” said Hussen. “Pumps to move water through the plants, check gates to manage water levels in the system, and turnouts to deliver water to our customers.”

Like every job at CAP, it’s not an easy task. Unlike every job at CAP, the schedule is hectic and the hours are unique; each dispatcher works a 12-hour shift, working 36 hours one week, 48 hours the next, including weekends and holidays. There are two dispatchers and a lead dispatcher during the day shift and two dispatchers during the night shift. The schedule rotates each of them through various days of the week; every four months the night and day shift crews switch.

Annual water deliveries are based on delivery schedule requests submitted by each water customer in October for the following year. Lead dispatchers work with water customers each day, discussing changes to their water needs in real time and for the next 24 hours based on weather and current conditions, and modifying the daily delivery schedule. Dispatchers work in real time, monitoring and adjusting water levels, operating pumps and gates, and fulfilling water customers’ orders, which can involve as many as 30 turnout schedule changes in one day.

It’s a fast-paced and complicated job that requires a unique skillset said Hussen.

“Dispatchers need to be good with math and have a lot of practical skills,” said Hussen. “They need to be able to expertly handle multiple things going on at once with the ability to recall information quickly and stay calm under pressure. It typically takes a year of training to get a new dispatcher up to a minimum level of competency, and about five years before a dispatcher feels comfortable handling most situations.”

Dispatchers are the first to see when something changes in the system. This summer, dispatchers noticed water levels in the south end of the system quickly rising, a sign that alerted them to a dike failure. The most significant event caught by dispatchers happened in the early morning hours of September 30, 2012, when equipment that monitors the west end of the system showed a sudden one-foot drop in the water level. Even though the flow leveled out, dispatchers knew something was wrong simply by the data on their screens. They were right; a 12-foot concrete panel along canal left had collapsed, pouring water more than 100 yards in both directions from the breached section of the canal. Once the breach was confirmed, dispatchers quickly responded to put a plan in place, including shutting pumping down west of the breach.

Dispatchers also monitor access doors across the system as they are opened and closed, and disarm pumping plants for employee access. When an employee needs to report a medical emergency, control center dispatchers get the call. They follow specific protocols, coordinating the emergency agency response based on the location of the incident to ensure the swiftest response, even to the most remote locations.

As you enjoy your holidays this year, don’t forget to be thankful for your colleagues including CAP’s water dispatchers who are doing their part to help ensure reliable water deliveries every day of the year.