Calling Off Hours: Emergency Engineering

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This weekend I’m visiting New Orleans with a few friends. I first fell in love with this city a few years ago after being here for 6 months on an emergency stormwater project. Now, I make it back as often as I can for jazz and beignets or a bit of wandering around my old haunts (and if you know New Orleans, this city is definitely haunted). But in the middle of touring the French Quarter on a Saturday afternoon, I received a notification that a work conference call was starting. I stepped away from the saxophones and dialed in, uncertain of what to expect. Something had gone wrong on site and we were now classified as an emergency situation.

I am a water engineer. My designs are built by field crews who physically construct and modify reservoirs, potable city water lines, and water treatment plants. In this business, there are often many communications that extend after hours. Sometimes that means small design revisions and substitutions, which cost less or are easier to install.  Other times, the contractor may submit a question to the engineer at 10PM for something they want their crews to work on the next morning at 6AM. Consulting is an industry culpable to long hours, weather delays, and irregular schedules. 

Occasionally, projects don’t go according to plan. A hurricane could come in carrying silt and rain, setting back construction for months. A risk taken in design may result in a redesign once we get into construction. But an emergency project is special. People’s lives are at stake so we work and make decisions quickly to mitigate the situation. It may be a Saturday in the French Quarter, but emergencies don’t take weekend breaks. We’ve flown in our specialized safety expert from the west coast and have one guy on site who is literally retired but still putting in these weekend hours out of loyalty. This line of work is not just a career, it's a calling.

Many of my coworkers work the typical 9 to 5, but that’s not for me. I love the all-in nature of project management on massive infrastructure works. As a leader, my style is this: no matter what time or job, I am here to help. Even if I'm on PTO (paid time-off) in The Crescent City. Admittedly, I am addicted to my job, especially when it is an emergency project. I am passionate about supporting my team and staying in the loop of the situation. I struggle to remove myself fully from work even on vacation and when I’m in an emergency, this is on overload. Normally I don’t get email notifications, but when an emergency has started, the notifications come on, I schedule twice-a-day meetings, and I wake up at 2AM wondering how my night owl coworkers have fared. 

I get deep satisfaction from feeling like what I'm doing is important. I wake up early on the weekend to take conference calls because emergency engineering matters to me. Everyone is rowing in the same direction, trying to get the emergency resolved. It’s stressful but it’s fun. Your team becomes intimate like your family. That being said, this line of work also has its challenges. I don't get consistency in my personal life. I don't get to control my schedule like the type A person I am. I am often canceling plans at the last minute or wishing I had more time for my hobbies and friends. But even as I'm missing the tarot reading in the square, there's no other call I'd rather take. Each of us is just a single drop in the river but together we are the Mighty Mighty Mississippi. And I am here, making a world of difference for the safety and security of the cities I love. It's totally worth it.


Thank you to Andi for writing this guest post! If you want to learn more about her work, check out her bio here, find her on Instagram @dumontandi, or read more of her work at her blog www.andromedadumont.com. Her latest youtube is from this visit to New Orleans and explains stormbasins and soil composition at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4UY6UXzrK68.