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Operators Take the Challenge and the Spotlight at WEFTEC

Digital Magazine Sept 22 Operations Challenge and the Spotlight at WEFTEC

Operators Take the Challenge and the Spotlight at WEFTEC

Stefanie Vaughan was 12 years old when she attended her first Operations Challenge at WEFTEC 1993 in Houston, Texas. Even as part of the fourth generation of the family-owned Vaughan Company, Inc., she had no idea about the impact the event would have on her future.

“The event is truly in my blood,” said Vaughan, who is now the Marketing Director for the family’s pump company. “I’ll never forget that first time I saw the Ops Challenge. I heard it before I saw it. My dad was vice president of Vaughan at the time, and he would always take the opportunity to take my mom and us four kids to work with him when he could. I remember the cheering and the excitement. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was seeing at the time, but the energy and the passion from the competitors was contagious!”

But it wasn’t just the competition that got her attention.

“There was something about the comradery and the teamwork among the participants,” she remembered. “My dad told me that these were the guys who were working so hard as unsung heroes in the real world and then they get to come to WEFTEC and show off and be superstars. These guys are the backbone of the industry. Participating in the event as a sponsor gives us a chance to express our gratitude for what they do every day. To me, that’s the real spirit of the Ops Challenge.”

The first Ops Challenge previewed in 1983 and has continuously grown. At the 2022 event in New Orleans, 45 teams will compete, making it the largest event in history, even prior to the pandemic. The growth has extended far beyond the U.S. borders, with events in Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, and Germany.

“The concept of the skills competition is a training tool that engages operators more Operators Take the Challenge and the Spotlight at WEFTEC effectively than any product or program that I’m aware of,” said Steve Harrison, Senior Manager of Operations Programs at the Water Environment Federation (WEF). “

In June, with generous support from KSB, WEF took two teams to compete in the World Water Skills event at IFAT in Munich, Germany. In September 2022, with generous support from Vaughan, a team will compete in Cali, Colombia’s Olimpiadas Sanitarias. The following week the IWWA will have their inaugural skills competition in Copenhagen, Denmark.

“The huge participation at this year’s WEFTEC really validates the competition to the operators, the manufacturers, the
sponsors, and the entire water sector,” Harrison said. “I describe it as a competition imbedded in a professional development program. What people see is a competition. What they don’t see is the value that is returned back to the communities of the competing teams in terms of cross training, morale, and team building. There is no other program in the world that matches the value of the Operations Challenge. It is absolutely the most compelling thing at WEFTEC.”

Digital Magazine Sept 22 Operators Take the Challenge and the Spotlight at WEFTECThe symbiosis of the program between the corporate partners, the competitors, the manufacturers, and the sponsors is one of the things that makes the event special, according to Harrison.

“These companies have the opportunity to build relationships with the most talented and ambitious operators in the world,” he said.

Harrison describes the Operations Challenge as a “water quality pentathalon” because it includes five distinct events—Process Control, Laboratory, the Maintenance Event, Collections, and Safety.

The most interesting feedback Harrison has ever received about the Ops Challenge came from Germany. The event was compared to the mythical creature Eierlegende Wollmilchsau, which translated to English means “egg-laying-woolly-milk-sow.” It is capable of providing eggs, wool, milk, and meat—all from one animal.

Digital Magazine Sept 22 Operators Take the Challenge and the Spotlight at WEFTEC“I was flattered by the comparison because it shows that the event is really diverse and provides the full gamut of technical training and all the elements of the water industry,” Harrison said. “Each team has four members, and each is proficient in something specific. Together, they can do it all. All of their strengths are showcased during the multiple challenges. The best teams have an analytical person, a lab person, a mechanical person, and a physically-strong person.”

The challenge is not limited to men. There have been two all-female teams who have competed at WEFTEC, including “Charli’s Angels” which was sponsored by Empowering Pumps & Equipment, a multi-year award sponsor for the event.

Digital Magazine Sept 22 Ops Challenge and the Spotlight at WEFTEC“We love cheering on all the teams, and we understand how awesome our operators are. They are truly essential,” said Empowering Pumps and Empowering Women in Industry Founder and CEO Charli Matthews. “We really got involved when we sponsored the Charli’s Angels team in 2018, which took our mission to empower women in industry to the next level.”

The Vaughan-sponsored team competing in Colombia in September (the New Jersey WEA Cakebreakers) includes a talented female, Emily Zidanic, Wastewater Program Engineer at the Cape May County Municipal Utilities Authority in New Jersey. She has competed in WEFTEC Operations Challenges since 2018, but this is the first time a female will compete in one of the international competitions.

“I’m honored to be asked to compete,” Zidanic said. “The best thing about the Ops Challenge is that none of the guys have ever said, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ They are very empowering and look at me as an equal. It’s always encouraging as we do the hard work required for the challenges.”

Zidanic’s special skills include laboratory and process control. She’s a lab supervisor in addition to her job as an engineer.

“I don’t really focus on being one of the only women competing in these competitions,” she said. “But this international competition is groundbreaking so I’m hoping to live up to it. I’m happy to just be a member of the team.”

The 30-year-old Zidanic and her team will also be competing at the WEFTEC Ops Challenge.

In the past few years, Harrison and his team have worked hard to make the event more accessible to new teams. There have been Divisions 1 and 2 in the past, but this year a Division 3 has been added to include only brand new teams who have never competed in the event before.

“The event is complex and can be intimidating for a new team,” Harrison said.

This year, 10 teams will compete in Division 3 with an orientation on Sunday at WEFTEC to give the new teams one hour of process and modeling training and a half hour training with an experienced competitor or volunteer in each of the five competition modules. WEF has produced video tutorials showing a detailed walk through of each task to help the new teams prepare.

“The Operations Challenge is most effective when we are reaching brand new teams,” Harrison emphasized.

Vaughan has worked with her family company since she was 16 and now has 25 years of experience. She never forgot her first Ops Challenge, so when the opportunity emerged to sponsor the maintenance event like KSB, Godwin, Weir, and other pump companies had done in the past, she jumped in full force.

A sponsor of Ops Challenge for more than a decade, Vaughan will be the main equipment supplier for the maintenance event in 2023. That required creating a real-world scenario and building a challenge around how their submersible conditioning pump would be used in an actual situation. Vaughan created an event leadership team that includes Technical Director Bill Deibert and Riley Fairchild to ensure that the competitors will receive value from the event.

Digital Magazine Sept 22 Ops Challenge and the Spotlight at WEFTEC“The idea is more than just providing a fun and competitive event,” Vaughan explained. “It’s about creating a solution in the field. Our goal is to showcase the quality of our product and show how the end user actually uses it in the real world.”

For the challenge, the Vaughan pump will be running inside a tank with flowing water. Competitors will need to remove the pump from the tank and change out the impeller nozzle, and then return the pump to the tank and back into full operation. There are several checkpoints along the way. The imaginary scenario is that a lift station is in operation in a city in which a new restaurant has come online and is dumping additional waste into the existing lift station. A straight nozzle was fine before the restaurant came into play, but the additional floating grease now requires an upturned nozzle and a different type of impeller.

During WEFTEC 2022, Vaughan will host all the teams at their booth (#4017) at scheduled times to walk them through the details of the challenge for the 2023 event. Vaughan will take the preliminary feedback from the operators to ensure that the scenario is true to what could possibly happen in the real world. That input helps to improve the competition and to make it more exciting, safer, and more challenging.

“This is a great opportunity for the participants, for Vaughan Company, and for the future leaders of the industry to work together to help solve their problems,” Deibert said. “We can get more insight on how to improve our products with their real-world problems in mind. We all work together to advance everyone’s knowledge of what is really happening out there in the field. By hosting the maintenance event, we can show our support, listen to their problems, and help them to find solutions. We can use their input to make improvements to our products and that makes their lives easier.”

Jim Dawson, Marketing Manager for longtime event sponsor KSB agrees that the Ops Challenge provides benefits to everyone involved.

“We’ve found that the intense testing grounds of the competitions provide valuable insight into product performance, and most importantly the relationships we’ve made with so many water professionals have been immensely rewarding,” Dawson said. “The individuals who participate in the Operations Challenge sphere are at the very heart of our industry. There is no better place to be!”

Even though it’s a competition, the participants are industry comrades.

“The competitors generally work in anonymity and isolation doing the most important jobs in the world,” Harrison said. “This competition facilitates networking with the best operators in the business for a group of the industry that lacks access to traditional networking opportunities. And most importantly, it gives them a chance to shine.”

For more information about the WEFTEC Operations Challenge, please follow this link.

And don’t forget to stay an extra day after WEFTEC to attend the Empowering Women in Industry Gala

About the author:

Michelle Segrest is president of Navigate Content, Inc., a full-service content creation firm. Contact her at

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