Susan has been a Municipal Electrical Distribution Operator since 1990, achieving her Journeyman designation in 1998. With more than 30 years of Distribution Control Room experience she has seen many changes in the Utility business. She grew up in East York, Ontario, and currently works for a Utility in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA).
Can you tell us what you do?
I am a Control Room Operator at a Local Distribution Company. The Control Room is responsible for monitoring the Electrical Grid 24/7 365 days a year. Electrical Operator’s are the trade group responsible for the safe and efficient operation of the Electrical Grid including administration of all Work Protection, Outage management, Planned work scheduling, Customer requests for maintenance, Hydro One, and Independent Electrical System Operator (IESO) point of contact. I often think of my trade as a jack of all trades and master of records. We touch all the different assets connected to the Grid. SCADA & Smart Grid Hydro One Stations, Municipal Stations, Switches, Lines, cables Cubicles, blades, and protective devices like fuses. While the PLT is the most visible trade in the Utility business, it is the Control Room Operator that keeps watch over the system, we have the most up to date records, a PLT crew wants to open/close a switch it is the Control Room that authorizes all the operations, planned or unplanned and updates the Operating tools to reflect those conditions.
A typical day can be full of routine tasks. Record checking, OTO preparation, Switching and OTO execution, Load monitoring, Contingency planning, small customer outages, report writing. Then your SCADA system lights up, alarms are going, and you’ve lost 3500 customers. If you’re fortunate you have a Smart Grid that has read the fault indicators and sectionalized the faulted section and picked up 2000 customers. If not, you are completing the sectionalizing manually, waiting on a crew to open then close switches in the field.
I am currently working as the Control Room Planner; I’m working straight days for the next 12 months, first time in my career. Planning all work for the Control Rooms, being point of contact for customer outage scheduling, developing training and passing knowledge onto new Apprentices, I’m really enjoying my new role.
What do you love about your career?
I love that everyday I go to work and never know what will happen, everyday is different. I personally live for the outages and storms, it’s my favourite part of the job. Trying to figure out where the fault is and directing the crews, deciding which switches to open and then close. How to restore the power around the problem, making safe work zones for the PLT’s to make repairs that part of the job gets me through the sometimes-boring routine tasks that go with a 24/7 365 environment. Working on a team of people as passionate as I am, about delivering great service to our customers while having a good time doing it is why I have spent my whole career in the Control Room. I have been at this for over 30 years now and I’m still learning, new equipment, updated regulations, rules, and procedures and that keeps me as interested today as I was during my Apprenticeship.
I am also really enjoying training the next generation of Electrical Operator’s. Drawing on my years of experience – the Storms like Hurricane Sandy, & the Ice Storm’s of 1998 & 2013, the 2003 UFLS Eastern Seaboard blackout, preparing for things like the G7, and Pan Am Games has put me in a position to share that wealth of experience with younger, newer Electrical Operator’s.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the electricity sector?
The biggest change I have seen is the use of Technology. Years ago, each month we would read each Municipal station meters and reset the peak readings manually, today all that information comes directly into the Control Room automatically. When I started on the job Circuit breakers at the Transformer stations were remotely operated via radio signal, you often didn’t know you had an outage until the Customers called asking when the lights were coming back on. Now we have hundreds of switches connected to the Grid with the ability to remotely operate them from a computer SCADA station in the Control Room. While the Technology has been good for outage management and reduces customer outage times. It has created new challenges in how to work safely with it. In the old days we always created a visual open-air gap at guaranteed isolation points. SF6 and other gas mediums have meant Rule Book changes and other safe work procedures have been developed to accommodate the new technology.
As a woman Facilities are still an issue, most LDC’s didn’t plan on women at their service centres when they built their buildings years ago so many don’t have locker rooms for women to use. Happy to see though LDC’s making the investment and Women’s locker rooms are being installed, as our numbers increase so does our footprint in the workplace. Today young woman starting in the trades have women’s clothing. When I started, they gave me men’s clothing, even after I altered it at home, it never fit properly, today I can go into our Warehouse and order proper fitting clothing.
In May of 1992 I attended the Trades Training Centre, in Orangeville, Ontario I was the only woman in attendance that week. It was a wonderful yet odd experience. I remember walking into the Dining Room for lunch on my first day before classes began. The room went almost silent and what seemed like a hundred pairs of eyes all turned to stare at the same time. I very quickly became used to being the only woman in the room and that is finally changing, I work for a woman Director of Operations. I have had the pleasure of working with 2 other Woman Journeyman Operator’s and assisted in the training of 2 bright young Women in the trade. I hope to see many more before I retire.
Why is it important to you to encourage women in the trades?
I remember thinking when I’d been on the job about 5 years that in another 25 years Control Room’s will be filled with Women. I cannot believe how wrong I was. A few years back I decided to get out there and spread the word, participating in the Local School board STEM programs. I have gone and spoke to auditoriums full of bright grade 10 girls (embarrassing my 16-year-old daughters in the process) but I think this is too late. I would love to get involved at the middle school level before the girls drop the sciences and maths required for most of the Electrical trades here in Ontario. Talking to them about awesome, well paying jobs that are available to them, especially about Control Room Operations is something I would love to do post Covid-19. As a working wife and mother of two young women, I have always encouraged my girls to be strong independent women who are happy with who they are not what society thinks they should be. I know that they are thinking about a career in the trades, and as their Mom that scares me a little because it’s going to be tough, but I know they will continue to break barriers and help make it a little easier for the next generation of Women.
The few women I’ve had the pleasure of knowing over the years who work within the electricity sector, whether as Operator’s/Controllers, Powerline Technicians, Engineers, bring a unique perspective to the table. Traditionally we have faced many challenges in our journeys before we even start our professional career. Often overcoming the traditional and non-traditional biases and fighting for the right to take part. Those experiences build resilience and a can-do attitude to the sector. Often women bring a balance to an all-male team we are more inclusive and create a diverse workforce, there is a greater variety of thoughts, ideas, and perspectives with women on the team.
When you’re not at work, where might we find you?
I am a homebody that loves spending time with my husband and 2 daughters. Swimming, whether in summer at home or in the winter at the community pool it’s my favourite way to keep fit. I am an animal lover with a house full of pets, and I enjoy spending time tending to the flowers and vegetables in my gardens. I am Piano player, a musician and find playing a favourite tune is a great way to decompress after a hectic day.
Is there any advice you would like to share?
To all the young women starting out I would like to offer this advice. When the men you work with keep asking you to repeat tasks again and again, instead of getting upset about it – tell yourself it’s a chance to prefect your trade. In the end you will be better and more confidant for it. I have participated recently in some Virtual Conferences run by the Colleges and have been disappointed in the messaging – Often the message is you are accepted, you will fit in. The reality is it’s going to be hard; you probably won’t be accepted by everyone. Early days could be lonely and trying, but hang in there, all your efforts will pay off with a well paying, and challenging career.
What changes would you like to see in the electricity sector 30 years from now in 2051? Share with us on Instagram by tagging us @WOMENOFPLT