The annual Ops Challenge competition at WEFTEC is a test of skill, knowledge and endurance. Teams win or lose based on a single question or a fraction of a second in the physical competitions. One of California’s teams, the LA Wrecking Crew from LACSD in Southern California consistently ranks a top contender at WEFTEC.
LA Wrecking Crew is so well known, WEF selected two LA Wrecking Crew team members for a special “Team USA – West Coast.” They traveled to IFAT in Germany this April to compete in a new, international Ops Challenge competition.
Carlos Vasquez, a Treatment Plant Operator 2, from LACSD’s San Jose Creek Water Reclamation Plant and Nicholas Janicke, a Treatment Plant Operator 2 at the massive Joint Water Pollution Control Plant in Carson. Nicholas is also the team captain for LA Wrecking Crew.
We recently caught up with Carols and Nicholas to see how Team USA did in Germany.
Q: How did you get chosen for Team USA and what was your reaction when you were told you’re going to Germany?
Nicholas: We were given the opportunity by Steve Harrison, WEF’s Senior Manager of Operator Programs and Education. I believe Steve was looking for individuals who display and possess the characteristics he felt would best represent the USA team.
I feel pride, sportsmanship and competitiveness are some of the traits which led me to become a team member. When I found out I was going to Germany, I was thrilled and honored that I was going to represent team USA.
Carlos: There were actually two teams representing the USA at IFAT, team West Coast and team East Coast. Fortunately, Nicholas and I are on the same team, and were chosen to represent the West Coast team. The East Coast team comprised of two other individuals. One was from Virginia and the other from South Carolina. Overall, every USA team member felt proud to be chosen to compete at the IFAT competition and just simply excited to be going to Germany.
Q: What was your reaction when you learned you were going to Germany?
Carlos: I was thrilled. I took German in high school but because of a class conflict wasn’t unable to take the class trip to Germany. So when I found out I was going to have the opportunity to actually go to Germany this time, I was very excited. Not only that, it’s Operators Challenge. The competition itself is exciting.
Q: What were the final results?
Carlos: We placed second in maintenance, second in lab, and second overall in the competition.
Q: What was the IFAT competition like? Is it similar, exactly the same as WEFTEC, or different?
Nicholas: They have some similarities to the events we see at WEFTEC. The IFAT judges focus more on proper techniques, whereas at WEFTEC we focus on speed and technique. Both WEF and IFAT share the same competitive enthusiasm for the operators challenge competition.
Q: What role did you play on the team and which event is your strength?
Carlos: The team Westcoast USA comprised of Nicholas and me. As far as any math questions or process scenarios, I’m pretty much your guy. But as far as specific roles, we don’t actually have any set in stone. We just work well together in coming up with a game plan that makes the best use of our strengths.
Carlos: As a WEFTEC team, I think our strong events are those that were similar to the ones in WEF. And just like in WEFTEC, with those events we were able to see the run, critique it, plan it out, and then just execute it.
Nicholas: As for a specific role, I don’t think there’s anything specific. Like Carlos said, we try to complement each other. I always try to motivate, inspire, and maintain a high level of teamwork. I feel like our strengths were the events that we had prior experience, which were the maintenance and safety events.
Q: What was it like competing against teams from around the world?
Carlos: In any competition, we look at every other team as top competitors. We never underestimate the competition. We don’t assume they don’t know as much as we do, and we always try to do our best. It was nerve-racking but we always try and keep our cool and try and just stay focused.
Nicholas: Competing and representing Team USA came with a lot of pressure. I think we tried to forget about the scale of the situation and focus on the task at hand one event at a time.
Q: How did you first get involved in ops challenge here in California?
Nicholas: I was asked one day at work by a former teammate, Mr. Matt Lynn. He told me about the Operators Challenge and explained how it could help me improve my skills as a professional. Where else can you compete against others, doing what we already do at work and have fun doing it? I was sold.
Being part of the LA Wrecking Crew has improved not only my knowledge of wastewater, but also my ability to work more efficiently with others under stressful and sometimes high pressure situations.
Carlos: I was also asked by Matt Lynn. Nicholas and I started on the team the same year, which was 2013. I think it’s almost 6 years now. Matt sold me on the same things Nicholas brought up. It was a way to broaden our wastewater knowledge, which is very helpful for the state certification exam.
What I found very helpful is actually working with equipment that I didn’t necessarily use at the time, but did so later on in my career.
Just like in the safety event, we go through the same confined space procedures at work as we do in the competition. A lot of the procedures we go through in events I now apply to my job. It’s very beneficial.
Q: Do you think there’s a way to convince more California agencies to participate?
Carlos: I think a lot of agencies just need to have the opportunity to go watch the competition and it will speak for itself. Looking at the events is fun and educational. A lot of the feedback we get from other agencies that are unable to compete is the monetary cost of flying a team and paying for their time to practice and compete is the main reason that prevents them from participating. Maybe some sponsors can help out.
Q: What’s your next competition?
Nicholas: 2018 WEFTEC in New Orleans
I would be honored to represent team USA again, but at the same time, I would also like to see other competitors get the same opportunity, for what I feel was a great learning experience to represent Team USA and travel to another country and compete against teams from other countries.
Q: Anything else memorable about the competition in Germany?
Nicholas: It’s a great opportunity to meet new people and experience how other parts of the world live. We also learned about the different wastewater treatment processes and techniques used in other countries.
Carlos: It was a great opportunity to travel outside the US and see how other countries treat their wastewater. They had some processes that impressed me, and others I would say the US can teach them on how to do things a little bit better. But overall, it was a great experience. I had a great time and personally the best part of this competition was traveling overseas.
Carlos: We visited the Nuremberg wastewater treatment facility. Michael, the chief plant operator, gave us a tour of the plant. It was a tertiary treatment plant with solids handling. Their equipment was a little older than ours back home, but the process was quite similar to the USA.
Nicholas: A bit of travel advice – if you’re ever in Germany, you have to stop by the Hofbräuhaus restaurant.