System Ops: Life as an Energy Control Center Operator (ECCO)

I reworked this piece, originally written by Ahmed Mousa in The Grid Optimization Blog to be a little more universal but all credit for the gist of what follows goes to Ahmed Mousa. 

This short paper will show you why Energy Control Center Operators (ECCO) are key for keeping the lights on. This paper will shed some light with respect to the importance of what they do and how their job is unique. After reading this paper, you should look at ECCOs in a different way.

Very few people truly understand what energy control center operators (ECCO) really do and the significance of what they do.

Our mission is to:

· Protect the public

· Protect company personnel

· Ensure continuity of service

· Restore power in a safe and expedient manner when there are outages

· Provide a safe environment for crews to conduct maintenance and construction work to accommodate customer load growth and to enhance reliability

Before we get deep, let’s make sure that everyone realizes that we are operating an entity (electricity) that:

·Is invisible

·Travels at the speed of light

· Can be fatal

So basically we are protecting from something that neither us nor the crews can see, smell or touch and can kill the within cycles (there are 60 cycles in 1 second).

Now that we know the importance of ECCOs and how utilities cannot survive without them, let’s discuss how different we are from the other people.

Being an operator is not an easy task. In order to get a job in the control center, applicants usually go through aptitude tests, interviews, psychological evaluations, background checks and medical exams, not your typical hiring process.

The job characteristics:

·Shift work (usually a 12 hour shift). We don’t follow the Monday to Friday schedule; we don’t even know what day it is sometimes. We miss important events   in our lives and don’t get to witness key moments in our kids’ lives.

·Working long hours with the same partner, that you don’t choose and while you may either like or dislike the person, it is expected that you work well together as a team and ensure a safe environment. Being that our country is a melting pot, a control center is comprised of people of different religions, accents, cultures and habits.

·Trust is key, field crews need to trust that the ECCOs have arranged a safe work location for them.

·As an ECCO you have to be on top of your game, all the time, you cannot afford to wander or be distracted even for a moment. We work for very long hours and we may receive a call at 4 AM that a certain device or a transformer is on fire and we have to perform certain steps in a very expedited and specific manner (without having any time to go through your notes or phone a friend) sometimes to shutting off customers to remove from service all impacted equipment, re-routing electricity like a surgeon who only removes the problematic veins, not the whole heart.

·You are expected to check your baggage at the door at no time shall your personnel life interfere with your focus.

·The training process is comprehensive and covers hundreds of specifications/procedures that are vital to the operation of the electric grid. ECCOs are like super computers, during emergency situations we are expected to dig deep in our brains and recall from our memories certain specifications and directions.

·Communication is vital and being that we interact with everyone, from within the company as well as with members from other utilities, customers, transit authorities, etc... Making it challenging; different companies use different lingo and have different procedures.  Still, we must ensure everyone is on the same page to avoid any incidents.

·We are isolated from the world, yet fully connected, in a secured room keeping the lights on, without losing any focus. Regardless of how nasty the weather is:  heavy rains, hurricanes, feet of snow, fires, we are still on the way, whether transportation is running or not, we are on the way to work.  While everyone is directed to go home and  stay safe, we are heading in the opposite direction. Customers come first and nothing will stop us from reaching the control centers during the time when our customers need us the most.  We are truly available 24/7, 365 days; When you are at work so are we, when you are having dinner with your family we are heating up a frozen dinner, when you are sleeping we are awake, and on holidays we set our alarms and drive in to work..

In conclusion, I hope I was able to shed some light about the importance and significance of our job. We do miss important family and friends’ events; our job’s stress is high and the risk is higher. There is no room for human emotions or “honest mistakes”. The next time you see an ECCO, please realize that you are dealing with one of the utility finest.

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