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Getting dirty and taking a deep breath

New DPW Water and Highway Superintendent reflects on Brattleboro and water lines

BRATTLEBORO—Hannah O’Connell sits back in a brown desk chair in the Department of Public Works conference room. She grins.

“I like to get dirty as much as I don’t like pushing around a pencil,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell started last October as the Department of Public Works water and highway superintendent. She succeeds Rick Ethier, the former superintendent, who retired in June after more than 30 years in the department.

“I feel like I’m a part of something,” said O’Connell, 29, about her position at DPW.

O’Connell pauses when asked why she chose engineering. Then she says it’s because she loved loved math and physical science in school.

“Someone said to me, ‘You should be an engineer,’” O’Connell said. “I never looked back.”

O’Connell said she holds “so much respect” for the skills and experience of her DPW colleagues.

Some employees have 40 years under their belt, she said. “That’s invaluable.”

A Massachusetts native, O’Connell graduated from Greenfield Community College (GCC) with an associate’s degree in engineering and started her engineering position with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts the next day.

GCC students typically transfer to a four-year college, she said. But the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) knocked on O’Connell’s door with an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“Yes, working!” she said laughing. “Who wants to go to school?”

She worked six years for MassDOT as a resident engineer on construction and inspection projects.

“Mostly bridge projects,” said O’Connell. She added that she happily spent all day outside.

Working for a half-dozen years on bridges gave O’Connell a solid grounding in general construction, surveying, reading plans, and coordinating diverse local, state, and federal agencies.

On a bridge project in Turners Falls, Mass., O’Connell managed 15 employees and inspectors while dealing with concerns from the public.

Organization is key, she said. When running multiple jobs, the leader must keep all the balls in the air while “always knowing nothing is going to go according to plan.”

And becoming a mother has taught O’Connell that sometimes she just has to take a deep breath.

O’Connell moved to the area with her husband, who grew up in Brattleboro. The family now lives in Vernon.

“I love Brattleboro,” said O’Connell, who describes the town as a close-knit community with so much to do. She said she is excited to volunteer for the Strolling of the Heifers weekend, coming up June 7-9.

“It’s just such a great place,” O’Connell said. “I understand why it’s the one and only.”

After relocating, O’Connell focused on family to welcome the couple’s son, now 18 months old.

Following maternity leave, O’Connell stepped into a temporary position at the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s office in Dummerston.

Of her time with the AOT, the title of “technician” didn’t come near to describing the job, said O’Connell. There, she acted as a liaison between towns, state agencies, AOT, and federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The job was great, she said.

O’Connell covered AOT District 2, which includes portions of Windsor and Windham counties. As a Vermont newcomer, she said, she loved traveling through different towns working on projects big and small, including Tropical Storm Irene recovery and surveys for paving projects.

Yet, O’Connell said, she could be home at night for her son.

“He runs at full speed,” she says with a laugh.

Steve Barrett, director of public works for Brattleboro, called the AOT office looking for someone to replace Ethier just as O’Connell’s temp job was winding down.

O’Connell said she felt sad leaving the AOT, but made the leap to the DPW with enthusiasm for her new challenges.

Her relative inexperience on the utilities side, such as wastewater management, hasn’t stopped O’Connell from surging ahead and learning as she goes.

Once a week she tries to spend a day learning different aspects of the town’s department. DPW keeps the roads paved, retaining walls standing, water flowing, and liquid and solid waste flowing away.

Recently, O’Connell spent a day touring the town’s multiple wastewater pump stations. She spent another night with the DPW crew “flushing” — that’s checking water clarity and flushing out the fire hydrants, she clarifies.

“It’s really different every day,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell pulls out a long list of projects and committees in which she participates. The Wastewater Treatment Plant tops the list.

“It’s the big one,” she said, adding the work on the multi-million dollar project is about 99 percent complete.

O’Connell also participates on the town’s internal Cultural Competency Team, which is aimed at improving the town as an employer — and improving how the town deals with the public generally.

“[We’re working on] how we can make this a better place to work,” she said.

O’Connell also attends the town ADA Advisory Committee, which is dedicated to “creating awareness of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) concerns while providing information about, advocacy for, and solutions to the town’s ADA-related needs and issues.”

Brattleboro’s geography presents a big challenge to some ADA-related accessibility, she said. The buildings’ footprints and street access can also make it difficult for the town to alter existing infrastructure.

“We don’t take concerns lightly,” said O’Connell. But sometimes there’s no solution.

O’Connell also serves on the Tree Advisory Committee and helped secure a $500 grant from the UVM Extension. The funds will help the committee develop a survey and plan to protect Brattleboro’s ash trees from the emerald ash borer, an invasive pest.

Brattleboro does not want to look like Worcester, Mass, she said: Worcester, badly hit by the pest in 2012, was forced to clear-cut many of its ash trees.

Upcoming projects include installing the new Black Mountain gravity-fed sewer line, and eliminating the Black Mountain pump station.

The sewer line will tunnel under Interstate 91 and join a line beneath Putney Road, she said. The project, now in the design phase, is slated for summer.

Spring paving and repairing retaining walls on Strand Avenue and Washington Street are under way.

The department will also conduct work on the Chestnut Hill and Pleasant Valley reservoirs this summer. DPW recently received two grants from AOT that have O’Connell excited:

The first is to improve safety at the intersection of Western Avenue and Union Hill. The second grant will fund a scoping study to improve safety on Western Avenue near the entrance and exit of Academy School.

Repairs related to Tropical Storm Irene continue.

The town is completing repairs to the Cook Road Bridge off Route 9 in West Brattleboro, which washed away during the August 2011 flood.

Other road projects, such as installing better drainage and culverts on Ames Hill, have taken longer, as they’re waiting on FEMA funding.

The flood also damaged the outfall pipe at the wastewater treatment plant. The pipe was not leaking sewage, O’Connell emphasized.

Two months ago, FEMA finally approved funding to repair the pipe and the state granted the environmental permits for the river work, said O’Connell.

O’Connell is also assisting with developing Brattleboro’s traffic calming plan. The goal, she said, is to develop a uniform method for responding to citizens’ concerns.

Brattleboro’s topography presents challenges with traffic calming as “there’s not a lot of room for change,” O’Connell said.

Nevertheless, O’Connell and the Traffic Safety Committee feel the public should feel confident that all concerns are addressed to the best possible level.

According to O’Connell, traffic calming plans started in Europe in the 1960s. They attempt to decrease the negative effects of vehicular traffic for people near and on the roadway.

Safety for the DPW is a big priority for O’Connell. As a mother and a wife, “I want my guys to come home in the same condition they left in,” she said. She extends this attitude to her colleagues.

O’Connell is working on safety protocols for the DPW and presents every week on safety issues to each department within DPW. Uniformed training and standard operating guidelines are on the weak side, said O’Connell.

She said she hopes to develop a stronger safety culture at DPW.

Brattleboro’s “great crew” keeps the town’s civic infrastructure in good condition, she said. “Really, their hearts belong to Brattleboro.”

When a town has 100-year-old water lines, a good maintenance schedule is key, O’Connell said.

The town’s public works is a complicated combination of reserve wells, treatment plant, pump stations, water lines, roads, and retaining walls. “I think that’s really commendable for the complexity of our system,” she said.

O’Connell works in a male-dominated field. When asked if she has experienced issues related to gender, she mulls it over. Gender issues don’t usually appear on her radar until it’s pointed out, O’Connell said.

“I’ve always preferred working with men,” as, in her view, men say what’s on their minds and move on, she said.

As a student, O’Connell remembers she was often the only woman in her math and science classes.

O’Connell admits, however, that she was apprehensive about starting work at the DPW. She says she doesn’t know whether the worry stemmed from her age, or from being one of only two women in the department.

That said, the department welcomed O’Connell immediately.

“I get my fair share of being picked on and I give it right back,” she said with a smile. “We only pick on the people we love. I’ll get really worried if they stop talking to me.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #205 (Wednesday, May 29, 2013).

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