By Barry Howell, Visu-Sewer of Missouri
Working in the public works field is interesting to say the least. Just when you think you have seen or done it all,
there is always something new and different to consider. It might be a variation on a manhole configuration, armed citizenry, roaming animals, or using large diameter corrugated metal pipe as a conduit for unrestrained, small diameter CIPP. You just never know on a daily basis whom or what you might encounter in our world.
Here are a few things I have seen and learned in my years in this business:
• “They Should Listen to Me” Guy – Invariably when I do field investigations prior to pricing/estimating a project, I encounter this person. Usually, this is a long-time denizen of the town or village, who has a poor regard for their public utility, city administration, and the world in general. This person is almost always a crank and can sometimes be a former elected official who has lost an election or has an ax to grind with the City administration. They are usually loud and direct with their diatribe about their general disdain for the City, the Utility, and even their neighbors, often within earshot of the utility person accompanying me. Mostly I smile, nod, or shake my head empathetically (as the situation dictates), and move on as quickly as possible. A few years back, I actually planned a 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning manhole inspection just to avoid such a person in one of my client cities, but he caught me anyway. I probably should not have clanged that manhole lid so noisily when I opened it!
• You Do Not Know What Life Is Dealing – We all have lived through the difficult and on-going COVID times in the last year. Compounding the effects of the pandemic, I lost an elderly parent (who also had raging dementia) to the virus earlier this year. It was difficult to watch my loved one slide away and never know from day-to-day what to expect from her behavior. Some days, she did not know who I was (in her mind). Recently, I was in Illinois doing field work on a CCTV project. While standing in the street with a sewer map in-hand, I spotted an elderly lady glaring at me from her driveway. I turned to her and smiled, prepared to do my “what I am doing here” spiel. She suddenly snapped at me saying, “What are you looking at? Why don’t you get out of here, you jerk!” My initial reaction was anger, then it hit me: I had seen this before. My anger immediately turned to empathy, then sad remembrance of another recent day. So, as you encounter older folks, or others with not-so-readily-apparent issues in the course of your duties, be careful and kind: you never know what forces might be in play in their lives.
• The Comedian – Invariably, regular citizens are fascinated by open manholes. How many times have I heard, “Are the fish biting in that hole?” or “Are you burying someone?” or some such tomfoolery. I usually sarcastically invite the citizen to take a look and climb down into the manhole if they want (no one ever takes me up on this). I think the ‘comedian’ is probably a relative of the ‘they should listen to me’ guy.
• You Will Be Found Out – I often go to small towns to work on projects. Sometimes, the public works person helps and is available, sometimes not. Usually, I make a stop at the police department or city hall to let them know I am in town and what I am doing. My company once had a young estimator who had to talk fast to keep from being arrested, on suspicion of terroristic activity in a not-so-friendly town, for failing to take this intermediate step. When I am working solo, it astounds me how often I will see a public works vehicle cruise by within minutes after I open the first manhole. You might walk in backyards, around houses, down city streets and up alleyways and never see a police car. Open a few manholes, however, and public works personnel will find you! It is amazing how often this happens. It is better to keep them advised than surprised.
• Wear a Logo and Have a Business Card or ID – When a citizen or foreman finds you in their backyard or on their job site, it is a good thing to have on something with your company’s logo (hard hat, vest, shirt, etc.) prominently displayed. I always have a business card handy or ID badge affixed as well. This can diffuse a situation and put people at ease. I also show them my map and briefly explain what I am doing in a cheerful voice. Unless old ‘they should listen to me’ is out there, this usually does the trick for me.
• Always Wear Safety Gear and Take Your Cell Phone – It is wise to wear a safety vest or jacket and be visible when working in the field – especially if you are actually in a field, forest, or right-of-way area. Should you have a medical emergency, encounter an animal, reptile, etc. and need help, make sure you are easy to find and contact. Never walk an off-road easement without some means to signal, call for help or assistance, and do not blend in with the surroundings. You are there working, not turkey hunting.
• Don’t Trust Dogs – We all have stories similar to the old Peter Sellers Pink Panther movie line, “Does your dog bite?” After the hotel clerk says “no,” the dog tears into Inspector Clouseau. Clouseau fights off the animal, looks at the old man, and says, “I thought you said…” whereas the old man cryptically replies, “That is not my dog!” A meter reader once taught me to never trust or provoke dogs. This includes non-threatening behavour, making direct eye contact, running away, or turning your back on them. The meter reader’s sage advice once got me out of a very touchy situation with a large Doberman Pinscher who discovered me in his owner’s backyard. Man’s best friend is territorial and by nature aggressive and inclined to chase things; take it easy, stay calm, and back away slowly with your gaze averted. In a worst case scenario, a little pepper spray or a manhole hook can come in handy but try to back away if at all possible. If all else fails, have a homeowner stand guard with a pistol while you inspect the manhole on their property. True story: I once knocked on a homeowner’s door to gain access to a manhole on his property. He agreed to help, then informed me of a roaming, large and aggressive Malamute (is there any other kind?) in the area that local Animal Control could not catch. He also offered his pistoleer services. I gratefully and a little pensively accepted Mr. Earp’s (not his real name) assistance, nervously and very quickly completed the inspection under his watchful and well-armed gaze, and then literally and figuratively got the heck out of Dodge, er West Plains.
• A Dog Corollary – Finally, I would also submit where is there is one dog, there may be others. On two occasions over the years, I have been distracted by a small, yapping dog while its bigger kennel mate (one a Rottweiler, the other a Pit Bull), tried to circle behind me for an attack. Being smarter than the average bear (mercifully an animal I have never encountered) and recognizing the tactic, I hastily got in my car/truck and slammed the door. There is nothing like the sight of a slobbering, snarling, huge dog muzzle pressed against your window to start the heart racing, not to mention your engine! As with most situations, keep your head on a swivel and always be aware.
Our industry is a great way to make a living. We serve the greater good and provide our communities with reliable and affordable utility services. Like any field of endeavor, public works has its pitfalls and pit bulls, too. Just be aware of these potential scenarios, keep your heart, eyes, and mind open, and things will usually work out fine. Be safe, be aware, and be kind everyone.