Signal Hill has long been a communications point on the Southern California landscape. In an earlier era, Native Americans signaled their brethren with fire and smoke, from Santa Catalina Island to the foothills of the Coastal Range bordering what is now L.A.

Today the signals are electronic, connecting us--at the click of a mouse--to vast, new worldwide networks.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Signal Hill Water Workers--Our "Boys in Orange"

We don't give them much thought, unless they block off our street, make all that racket, or cut off our water for repairs. No, we seldom give much thought to our "Boys in Orange." We take them--and the water they deliver to us--for granted.

I recently spent a week getting to know what they do there, digging in our streets, as they replaced 60-year-old galvanized service lines to our, and our neighbor's residences, with 1-inch copper pipes. I learned to appreciate these unsung workers of ours.

You can see photos of the process, with explanatory captions, by clicking on project.

There were several things that impressed me by this team of workers that I would otherwise not have experienced, had I not approached them with an appeal to let me document their work. Among these impressions are:

1. How, despite their cool and tough street-smart veneer, they were pleased to have someone take an interest in what they do on a daily basis; and how eager they were to show off their talents, and to share the complexities of their trade. They appreciate fully the intricacies of our vast water delivery system, and their own roles in that.

2. How they operated as a team, efficiently and methodically going about their business. Basically, a non-verbal group, relying heavily on hand signs, often midst noisy operations, to guide and protect fellow team members in their work. Without apparent direction, team members would share the work, digging or lifting a heavy piece of equipment, with an intuitive sense of what was needed. I saw a brute strength mixed with a delicate operation, to get the job done.

3. How each member of the team is able to do all project functions, and how the team does it all--from designation and notification of the work site to the final topping off of the trench with temporary patch and finished concrete work around the meter boxes. We discussed how working for a small city like Signal Hill allows them to be generalists, keeping the job interesting, and providing a good training ground for the young guys. The downside is the specialist, working in a big city, probably makes a bit more money.

4. How convivial the group is, and how each person is protective of the others. On the one hand, I saw good-natured ribbing--as when the dump truck inadvertently dumped its entire load; while on the other, I saw heartfelt concern, as they recounted a significant burn accident experienced by one of their team--Hector--that laid him up for two years.

5. I sensed a little frustrations over the increasing complexity and number of regulations that they must always be adapting to. Safety to the the worker and to the environment is a constant concern, and training on these matters is continual. During my week of observation, team leader Senior Water Worker, Rick, pointing to the large water jug attached to their truck, said he had just learned that they are out of compliance with the amount of drinking water they must carry: at least two gallons of water per worker per day.

6. How each project is unique, especially in older neighborhoods where there is a history of extensive oil drilling and operations. Despite the sophisticated Underground Service Alert system (USA), whereby all utilities are informed of proposed digging projects, and underground pipes are indicated by color-coded lines sprayed on pavement, there are most always surprises. I watched as they conferred among themselves, and also with their supervisor back in the office, to resolve unexpected challenges.

Take a look at the accompanying photo album, with captions, if you want to learn a little more about our "Boys in Orange" and the work they do. Further, it is instructive to consider that for each trade and for each system we rely upon--electrical, sewer, trash removal, gas, telephone, etc.--there are equivalents of our "Boys in Orange," who spend their professional lives training for, maintaining and repairing the infrastructure we rely upon daily.

Finally below see a very brief and poorly filmed video of Eric demonstrating one of the labor-saving skills he and the others have developed.


  1. I'm finding, now, that I view men and women working in our streets with greater interest and appreciation.

    -- RCH

  2. Everyone loves a man in uniform!