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A Community of Water - Lac du Flambeau, WI

Lac du Flambeau has been working with GLRCAP Operator Shawnee Ford since 2018. Shawnee’s first task was assisting the water operators with creating a Safety Manual that covers all aspects of the drinking water utility. The Safety Manual covered topics like handling the operator’s safety from confined space entry, fall protection, and lock out tag out to lagoons and ponds. GLRCAP assisted with creating an Emergency Response Plan in which the facility can use the document to help mitigate emergency roles and responsibilities dealing with natural and man-made emergency situations. This document is used to update emergency contact information with outside agencies and contact people which can be used during any given emergency. GLRCAP has also supported the operators with operator exam certification information, reviewing study guide material as well as assisting with online operator registration. This was especially prevalent through COVID when there was no in person testing.

Lac du Flambeau’s new water operators needed training and education to help them pass their Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Operator certification and to gain an understanding of the systems they are overseeing. A challenge they face is when new operators start their roles, and they do not yet have the confidence of knowledge and experience, they become hesitant to run the systems independently or make operational decisions.

All publicly owned waterworks are required by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to have a certified operator and are assigned a Grade of 1. Each plant must have a designated operator-in-charge certified in the appropriate subclasses for the processes used at the plant. Class S waterworks facilities must have an operator certified at Grade T or Grade 1 in the Surface Water subclass on duty at all times of operation. To become a certified water operator, one must pass one or more subclass exams and must accomplish recertification with continuing education credits, minimally, every 18 months.

In addition to the state requirements, the leadership of the water plants also offers an incentive to become certified and maintain continuing education credits in the form of wage increases through certification pay.

GLRCAP Operator and Trainer Shawnee Ford takes a multi-pronged approach to learning to help the new water operators of Lac du Flambeau. He employs standard study guide learning in seated face-to-face settings where operators can learn the theoretical content of the certification and practice exam-taking. He also encourages shadowing and “tailgate” training, where new operators are partnered with more seasoned operators to get live, hands-on experience in the plant as the processes and challenges are addressed in real time. 

Shawnee and GLRCAP also develop and present ongoing training opportunities, in-person and online, for operators to cultivate their experience from industry professionals and gain required continuing education credits.

The immediate and obvious impact from training and exam certification is that the community of Lac du Flambeau has competent, educated, experienced, and confident operators in charge of their water systems. Water systems and water plants have requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency that must be met to acquire the permits necessary to operate the plants. Operators and operation managers are responsible for ensuring that the daily processes and treatments meet these requirements. Without complete training, certification, and experience, it is very probable these EPA requirements may not be achieved. The training and education provided by Shawnee and GLRCAP enables operators to have a genuine understanding of the procedures and decisions made to manage a water treatment plant safely and confidently.

A second impact for water operators is a sense of protection and providing for their community. To the water workers of Lac du Flambeau, their community is their tribe, and their tribe is their friends and family. There is a touch of personal accomplishment by providing clean and healthy water to not just an amorphous town, but humans they know and care for. This creates an ownership and a kinship that transcends a job.

About the author

Great Lakes Community Action Partnership

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