Meeting Remote Alaska Challenges with Modern Ingenuity | Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

Meeting Remote Alaska Challenges with Modern Ingenuity

January 5, 2022

Running water is something most of us take for granted. Turn a tap and it is there, safe and clean. In remote Alaska communities, running water is another story, one that, at its heart, belongs to the unsung master of the water treatment plant: its operator.

“It takes a certain kind of person to do this job,” Brian Berube, senior program manager at ANTHC, recently said of Alaska’s small water treatment plant operators. “Water plant operators care deeply about their community, they’re committed, even when under-recognized and under-valued.”

Operators often work in extreme weather, in aging water plants and with little funding. Berube is hoping to change at least one of the challenges operators face: the certification exams.

Historically, Alaska’s rural water operators have a dismally low rate of passing the exams partially due to challenges not found in the Lower 48. The remoteness and isolation of rural Alaska communities means water plant operators do not have the access to, or luxury of, long-term learning. Candidates must fly to a central location such as Bethel. Training typically takes place in four 8-hour days that covers everything in a 400-page textbook, from chemistry and math equations to health and safety practices. Then they sit for the national exam.

“We need to make training fit the lifestyle of remote Alaskans,” Berube said. Unlike operators in the Lower 48, who can take weeks, or months, to train and study, Alaska’s operators live a vastly different, often subsistence, lifestyle. “If it’s the last week for seal hunting,” Berube explained, “the operator is going to go whether they have class or not, and it is our job to respect that and find a way to make the trainings work for them.”

Berube, who has taken part in operator trainings since 2015, was challenged by pandemic lockdowns. Travel to and from Alaska villages was not possible, yet these communities still needed highly qualified water plant operators. The solution was online training.

ANTHC’s Tribal Water Center, in partnership with the regional environmental health and remote maintenance worker (RMW) programs, began teaching virtual water plant operator classes in the winter of 2020. The goal was to educate operators about their critical work, provide incentive to learn and prepare them in their home communities to take the certification exams.

In the first year of training, the program provided three small treated water systems trainings that reached 80 operators from 45 rural Alaska communities. The Tribal Water Center is now expanding its training services to include virtual training for level 1 water treatment and wastewater lagoons.

Francine Moreno, manager of utility operations for ANTHC’s Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative and Tribal Utility Support programs, said, “Historically, the level 1 operator certification exams have resulted in about 7-9 percent pass rates statewide. Something had to change, and Brian, through the Tribal Water Center, is working towards doing that. Brian’s successful launch of a virtual small treated water systems training saw an over 80 percent pass rate, so it made sense to take the small treated success and create a level 1 training.”

Moreno added, “Brian’s level 1 training efforts resulted in 36% of operators passing the exam; that’s 5x the improvement over previous pass rates from the first training! He is an amazing trainer and has a knack for connecting the content to relatable, understandable concepts for our rural Alaska attendees.”

The success of the virtual training means more than hard-won certificates for operators. Federal and state regulatory compliance means water plants are required to have certified operators. Out of 155 rural water systems in Alaska, there are currently 55 water plants without certified operators. This can be a concern, not only for health and safety, but also for sources of infrastructure funding. Best practice scores for communities fall without a certified operator, limiting access to grants and other funding that is often critically needed. 

Long-term, Berube is working to have the virtual operator certification training be a self-standing, online format that operators can access no matter where they are, no matter their lifestyle. There is even an application that operators can access on their phones that provides flashcards, self-quizzes, reviews and practice tests.

While certification is a requirement that communities strive for, those without a certified operator can still have safe water. With practical, hands-on training and support from regional RMWs and ANTHC, plant operators are more than capable of providing their communities with safe, reliable water service.

Berube noted that most water operators understand the mechanics of the water plant and are able to make perfectly good water. Virtual training adds another layer of understanding to the process.

“We are helping operators understand why they do what they do.” Berube explained. “The cool thing for me is to see operators who never understood the why, suddenly get it. We are working to give operators the language and concepts to understand their work.”

It will be possible for a water plant operator to earn multiple certificates, building on the knowledge gained from previous trainings. Courses include Wastewater Lagoons, Small Treated Water Systems and Level 1 Water Treatment. Both operators and city/Tribal employees involved in the utility management are encouraged to attend.  

Berube is optimistic about the future of self-standing online formats for learning. It is good for the unsung heroes of the water treatment plant and it is good for rural Alaska communities. “Personally I value the work they do.” Berube said of water plant operators. “When we think of public health we often think of doctors and nurses, but in rural Alaska and across the world, the water plant operator is just as important in terms of keeping people healthy.”

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