Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle Information Technology Partner to Give Watershed Radio Communications a Boost

Cedar River Watershed

At Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), safety is always top of mind. For field employees, this means following certain protocols to avoid hazards and reduce the chances that an accident will occur. Less obvious, but just as important, is the role of reliable radio communications.

For much of Seattle Public Utilities’ service area, especially where population density is high, the radio communication system functions extremely well. This is not always the case in the Cedar River Watershed, where SPU staff and contractors are working on the Chester Morse Lake Pump Plant (MLPP) project. A lack of existing infrastructure and interference from the Cascade Mountains make communications difficult. SPU has long recognized the need to install better communications capabilities should the MLPP crew need to reach the Cedar Falls office or other crews in the event of a hazardous materials spill or an accident involving personnel. Thanks to a strong One Team effort from SPU and other City departments, a more reliable system is finally at hand.

Plans for getting a permanent communications system installed have been in the works for some time. Earlier this spring, SPU was close to finalizing a deal to lease space on a radio site in the Rattlesnake Ledge area, which the department does not own. Just weeks before the system was to be installed, the landlord became totally unresponsive, and SPU had to scramble. Ultimately, staff from the SPU Watershed Protection and Operations teams, SPU Emergency Management group, and City of Seattle IT department were able to work together to come up with a viable solution.

Traditionally, the infrastructure necessary for radio communication includes a tower, power source, and structure to house electronics, but none of these exist on site at Chester Morse Lake.

“We wanted to use tools that were already in place without overburdening the staff,” says Ned Worcester, head of SPU’s Emergency Management team. “With the help of Seattle IT and our engineering consultant, we did some computer modeling to determine viable radio sites, and the watershed staff validated them for access and maintenance potential.”

Next, Emergency Management set to the task of finding existing equipment to install on the chosen site. They rounded up radio equipment provided by Seattle IT, including an outdoor equipment cabinet salvaged from the roof of a Seattle Fire Department station. Seattle IT tested the equipment, mounted an antenna, and transported everything to the Watershed. SPU Watershed staff then delivered everything to the chosen site.

All that remained was finding a viable power source to run the equipment. Initially, the watershed team utilized four car batteries, hauling two at a time to the site. But the batteries had to be swapped out every day for charging, which required several hours of labor.

To save time and money, SPU began exploring alternatives. Emergency Management asked Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) staff for ideas. They proposed solar and secured bids from contractors, but all required too much manufacturing lead time.

Eventually, Watershed Operations staff came up with the idea for a thermo-electric generator (TEG). SPU owned two TEGs that were previously used for instream flow monitoring. The TEG utilizes propane to heat up platinum wire that produces electricity. Operations staff removed one of the TEGs from storage to fire up, configure, and transport to the remote site, along with a 500-gallon propane tank.

Additionally, the new radio channel had to be programmed into all of the radios at Cedar Falls. This required coordination between the Seattle IT radio shop technicians and SPU Watershed Protection staff to round up and physically program all of the portable and vehicle radios.

In just three days, SPU’s teams retrieved the radio equipment and Seattle IT’s radio shop provided a repurposed cabinet to house the equipment on site, helped find radio channels, tested and programmed the equipment, and mounted the antenna. These efforts took place on a Friday and over the weekend, and represented additional work for all staff involved.

Thanks to the collective efforts of SPU and Seattle IT staff, ratepayers save money, watershed radio coverage is improved, and operations are now safer and more efficient.

“This was a quintessential One Team effort and an example of what it takes to maintain communications that keep our employees safe and operations running smoothly,” says Worcester. “Several departments worked together to assemble a pilot radio communications system that can be replicated each year. We’re already planning how to create a physical site to be deployed year-round or seasonally.”