CWEA Member Profile: Here’s How We Can Honor Sewer Workers. A Q&A with the City of LA’s Kent Carlson

Kent Carlson (l) with Dorris Place team member Patricia. Kent has developed a brown ribbon to honor sewer workers.

Kent Carlson (l) with Dorris Place team member Patricia. Kent uses brown ribbons to honor sewer workers.

Kent Carlson
Operations Manager
City of Los Angeles
Department of Public Works
Bureau of Sanitation

“I believe a well-trained sewer worker is one of the most valuable resources a city has. It would be great if CWEA and CWEA members would take up the brown ribbon campaign to honor all sewer workers.”

How did you get into the profession?

I joined the city as a Machinist at Hyperion Treatment Plant for the first part of my career. About 20 years ago Bureau leaders noticed we were bringing more high-tech systems into the treatment plants but not bringing any new technology into the sewer side. I accepted a transfer to the collections side to assist with tool development.

In 1992 our Division Manager, Mr. Barry Berggren, developed a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that standardized the way we cleaned sewers so that all 6 yards across the city cleaned consistently using the same tools, cleaning procedures, and safety protocols.

I went about setting up a facility to perform benchmark testing for sewer nozzles performance as part of the SOP. The benchmarking enabled us to select the best nozzles and tools for our needs.  Over the last 24 years we really got this down to a science and that helped us get sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) down to a record low.

Where did the brown ribbons come from and what do they represent?

My daughter Hailey actually came up with the idea one day.  I was reading the book Brown Acres by Anna Skalar a history of LA’s sewer system, and I mentioned that there was no recognition in the book regarding the LA City sewer workers and there should be a way to honor sewer workers.

She told me, ‘what you should do is use brown ribbons to recognize sewer workers.’

I thought it was a great idea.  There’s really nothing nationwide to recognize sewer workers. So we made some ribbons and brought them here to the yard. It was a hit.

We wore them on National Public Works Recognition Day at City Hall. Everybody wore one.

You know when you think about what we do – the atmospheres we go into, the working conditions, it’s pretty vile. We are the firewall between all of that bad stuff and the public. We’re the ones keeping people safe. The true unsung heroes protecting our residents and our environment every day.

In the City of Los Angeles we have a 130 year history of sewer workers, and we’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished.

What is your proudest technology achievement?

I’ve been working on a game changing sewer nozzle design for the city over the last two years.  A new cleaning nozzle that cleans with less water usage because it’s important we save water during the drought.

It saves time in the line, saves resources on each work order. Helps the team get in and out of there faster. In developing new nozzles I look at fluid dynamics and how the water exits the nozzle and the impact zone of where the water strikes the pipe.

This nozzle’s nickname is Hailey’s Comet after my kid.

I’m in the right place to test different theories with our test rig. We are always innovating new tools and techniques here in Los Angeles because like other cities we’re under pressure to reduce sewer overflows. We never slow down testing new nozzles and designing our own tools.

Tools designed by a sewer worker for sewer workers tend to be the best.

How has the career changed over the years?

When I started in collections we still used 3×5 index cards and wooden sticks to manage the system and we would hand clean sewers. Today we use onboard computers inside the Vactor trucks.  We can beam work orders, GIS maps to any worker wherever they are in the City. We use high-tech cleaning nozzles and now drive half-million dollar sewer trucks around the city.

It’s great the City keeps up with technology and the newer workers joining us are more tech savvy and interested in the tech.

I feel sewer work is really a journeyman’s trade. I think it’s a key position in the wastewater world – like a utility player in baseball. We are craftsmen, construction workers, we have to work in the blind while jetting.  We crossover and work on stormwater projects and on pumping plants. It’s a very diverse trade, and a very technical craft.

That’s why recognizing the craft is so important. We’re behind the scenes but we play such s critical role in running a city. I believe a well-trained sewer worker is one of the most valuable resources a city has at its disposal.

I’m proud of what we do, proud to call myself a sewer worker. 

What should young professionals know if they want to become a manager like you?

Understand all the aspects of cleaning sewers – you have to be able to adapt to new challenges. The more knowledge you have the better you’ll do.

70 people report to me – stormwater cleaning, mechanical repair, large sewer line cleaning and special projects, so it’s important to have a clear baseline performance standards for everyone – Supervisors, field crews and managers.

Working around people you’ll need to have an understanding about their working conditions, they need space to do their job.  If there are designated roles and responsibilities we know what to expect from one another.

How did you and your crews become so popular on the TV shows?

It started with 1 tweet I sent. I posted a photo showing us doing some nozzle testing and it just took off from there. Tech blog Gizmodo saw the tweet and sent over a reporter to learn more about sewer nozzles, CCTV cameras and how we cleaned the sewers.

It snowballed from there. The Discovery Channel called and came out with us to film a segment cleaning lines up in the Hollywood Hills. And the other reporters started contacting us to do more stories.

What does the future of the sewer profession look like to you?

I think it’s an exciting future – technology is exploding in this sector – CCTV, GIS, computers on the trucks. Sewer workers of the future will be much better with technology. Rather than using rudimentary brute force for cleaning we’ll get smarter, more strategic and more efficient at what we do.

This is a very rewarding career – a lot of us are tenured employees who have been here a long time. We have a love for this craft.

My big ask is – please support your local sewer worker!

Interested in getting some brown ribbons to honor sewer workers? Leave a comment below and CWEA staff will work on getting you a few.

About the Author

Alec Mackie

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