Competing at Operations Challenge is no easy feat. According to past challengers, competition preparation requires dedicated time for year-round training, administrative and budget planning, and cooperation and sportsmanship. As much as it takes, challengers agree: it’s well worth it.

Operations Challenge is a team-based skills competition for wastewater professionals. The competition includes five events: Safety, Collections System, KSB Maintenance, Laboratory, Process Control. It features various components of operators’ daily responsibilities while also exposing competitors to new or emerging technologies and processes.

“It’s a lot of effort, because we practice for 6 to 8 months out of the year, but the rewards outweigh the time you put in,” said Eddie Davies, captain of Ocean State Alliance from the New England Water Environment Association.

“We are absolutely better operators because of this event,” said Ryan Patnode, an Ocean State Alliance team member. “Especially [when you come] from a small community, we get exposed to a lot of different processes and techniques that we don't have hands-on experience with, and we get to learn through all of this.”

Time
Training requires a significant time commitment especially when competitors have different schedules and may work at separate facilities. Some members of Ocean State Alliance started practicing during work hours (with company approval), others drove to afternoon team practices after their night shifts.

Patnode said that while preparing for Operations Challenge 2018, two team members — Pete Rojas and Davies — worked third shifts and Davies, also came to practice on his days off. Ocean State Alliance team members work at three different facilities and travel approximately 20 to 25 miles to practice during the week. They typically rotate practice locations to accommodate schedules and driving commitments.

However, Patnode added, “You almost forget about it because you don't hear any complaints about it from anyone.”

In addition to regular commutes for weekly practice, Ocean States Alliance and other New England-based Operations Challenge teams travel across states for the opportunity to practice with equipment that will be used in the competition. The equipment typically is too expensive for small communities to purchase. Trips to facilities in Maine, New Hampshire, or Massachusetts can take more than two or three hours.

Likewise, Jason Mank, team captain of the Ontario Clean Water Agency Jets, said that his team trains consistently throughout the year. The Jets resume practice shortly after WEFTEC and increase training frequency incrementally every month with extra practices before state competitions and WEFTEC.

New England Ocean State Alliance Members of Ocean State Alliance from the New England Water Environment Association compete at a regional event. (Courtesy Ocean State Alliance)

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Learn More About Operations Challenge

 Resources for 2019 challengers

Coverage of past events

See highlights of Operations Challenge 2018 in New Orleans.

Team Building 
Mank also noted that creating a cohesive and strong Operations Challenge team requires finding the right team members and getting approval from management. Regional managers typically gave recommendations for new and interested candidates and current team members also introduce potential new candidates. Once the team decides on who to add, they seek management approval.

“There is a lot of commitment from the organization and from the different regions,” Mank said. “We make sure that people can be away for half a day [of training] or, sometimes, for couple of days, if they are at a meet or conference.”

Mank also noted how grateful the Jets are for their coworkers’ support and assistance. Operations Challenge participants are required to fulfill their daily work responsibilities, despite the demands of training or competing. While the team is traveling or practicing for competitions, they rely on support and shift coverage from their coworkers.

“We appreciate them very much,” Mank said. “We definitely could not have done this without the support of our colleagues.”

Budget and Administrative Planning
Operations Challenge can be expensive, too. Teams need to prepare, train, and travel. Costs run the gamut from purchasing training equipment to travel expenses to reach WEFTEC. Some teams seek sponsors to help cover costs, others receive full funding from their company or municipality.

In North Richland Hills, Texas, the Pooseidons from the Water Environment Association of Texas, are on the lookout for sponsors. But for now, the team is developing their budget without one, according to coach Robert Burgess. The team receives financial support from the City of North Richland Hills, but the team is responsible for researching and creating the budget.

When the Pooseidons started, another Operations Challenge, the TRA CreWsers, helped them plan and budget. “Year one we had zero idea what we needed. We were very fortunate to have the TRA CreWsers big brother us,” Burgess added. Since then, getting management and administrators involved in the team, and on the pathway to WEFTEC has been instrumental, Burgess and team captain Chris Legg said.

“I think getting administrative support has really helped us tremendously,” Burgess said. The shared goal of competing and succeeding in Operations Challenge at WEFTEC generates a greater sense of camaraderie and teamwork among competitors and management who support the effort. “It’s contagious. From morale to results.”

Cooperation 
Operations Challenge also means listening to fellow team members and being prepared to be overwhelmed.

“A lot of young competitors practice and think they have the greatest time but they’ve never competed,” Mank said. “Until you feel the pressure and see hundreds of people watching, you don’t really understand.”

“We see new teams get discouraged, but we tell them time and time again to not get discouraged,” Mank said. “If you are negative, it becomes a much harder learning environment.”

Former challengers agree that time and energy is needed to be a successful competitor. Experienced challengers are happy to provide advice and help to newcomers. According to Mank, “Start practicing as soon as you can and practice all year.”

He added, “We always remind them not to give up. [Winning] doesn't happen in your first week or in your first year. You must go out and compete and see the intensity at the competition. It takes a year or two to get the team to work together and operate under pressure.”

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WEF’s new line of operator training, Wastewater Treatment Fundamentals, helps operators prepare for the first three levels of certification examinations and is eligible for up to 6 Continuing Education Units

Training for the Operator of the Future

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