Honoring 2011 National Public Works Week

May 15, 2011

When you stroll down a trail, put trash on the curb, or step into a library, you may not know that it’s made possible in part thanks to employees of the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.

In honor of 2011 National Public Works Week, this is a profile of some of the many jobs performed by the county’s public works staff. What they do helps to protect the environment and makes the county a safe, healthy and livable place.

Joan Allen, Forest Pest Branch

Joan Allen, Forest Pest BranchWhen most people look at a tree, they probably don’t realize it may be in danger of attack by aliens—that is invading bugs from other countries.

As one of five county foresters focused on invasive pests, Joan Allen spends her days worrying about which bugs might kill off trees across the county.

It can feel a bit overwhelming at times. Some days, she worries that the only trees left standing will be tulip poplars and the invasive tree of heaven.

Allen and the other foresters are combatting the gypsy moth, fall cankerworm, and the newest invader, the emerald ash borer. There also are the other pests that might make a foothold in the county like the Asian longhorned beetle.

To track these multi-legged assassins, the foresters spend time throughout the year conducting surveys. These are time-intensive, visual inspections of individual trees or traps to spot the pests. For example, Allen will spend almost a month in the field setting out triangular, purple-colored, glue traps for the emerald ash borer, which have killed more than 25 million ash trees in the U.S. In the spring, foresters conduct spraying programs to eradicate the pests they find.

However, Allen doesn’t spend all her time hunting down bugs. She’s also responsible for educating the public about the importance of trees and the pests that can harm them. She talks to homeowners associations, civic groups and school children. This year she’s already visited 40 elementary and middle school classrooms.

Most residents don’t know about Allen and her colleagues, but they’re always glad to learn that she's on the job.

“When I run across people in the field, I explain what I do, and they get really happy that there’s someone out in the county looking out for the trees,” Allen said.

Richard Markey, Stormwater Maintenance and Management

Richard Markey, Stormwater Maintenance and ManagementSpring showers aren’t a welcome sight for Richard Markey.

He’s responsible for making sure the county’s stormwater pipes and ponds work—especially when it rains.

“It’s a constant go, go, go and it’s constantly raining,” said Markey, one of four supervisors in the Stormwater Maintenance and Management Division. He and his colleagues must respond to problems 24/7.

They repair and maintain 1,800 miles of pipes and more than 1,100 ponds that get clogged with trash, sediment and debris. This can result in flooding on public and private property. Markey says that crews have found everything from chairs, bikes, skateboards, tires, carpet remnants and yard waste blocking the pipes and ponds.

Besides preventing flooding, why is it important to keep this infrastructure working? It plays a role in protecting the environment.

“The ponds trap a lot of the pollutants that wash off of our streets and parking lots,” Markey said.

They help to reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and other pollutants that get into streams and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. These nutrients are killing the Bay, and the county and other jurisdictions in the Washington, D.C. area must meet federal rules to protect this waterway.

To filter out even more pollutants, Markey and his coworkers are converting many ponds into manmade wetlands. Plants help to absorb the nutrients that wash into these marshy areas.

If his job doesn’t seem busy enough, maintenance staff are also responsible for clearing snow from county buildings; repairing county trails; creating and repairing street signs across the county; and helping firefighters tear down unstable buildings after a fire.

During Snowmagedon, staff worked 12-hour shifts for eight days to keep essential county facilities like fire and police stations open, Markey said.

It’s a big job, but the stormwater crews are up to it.

“You’re there for the residents to respond their needs, to help them out,” said Markey. 

Syndee Groves-Grace, Building Plan Review

Syndee Groves-Grace, Building Plan ReviewIt takes vision to do Syndee Groves-Grace’s job.

She works to make sure a homeowner’s vision for their construction project gets put down on paper in way that meets building and safety codes.

Groves-Grace and her two-person staff review 40 to 60 residential building plans a day. They look at plans for new homes, additions, decks, swimming pools, garages and more.

“A lot of times, you have customers coming in and they know what they want to do in their head,” she said. “But they have a hard time getting it down on paper.”

It can be a challenge since the state doesn’t require a professional to draw up building plans. It’s critical that the plans are right since builders use them for construction, and county inspectors use them to help ensure the work is done to code.

“We act as a mediator between the person who drew up the plan, the inspector, and the builder to help everybody communicate,” she explained.

It helps that Groves-Grace, along with her colleagues, have all worked as building inspectors.

Building codes protect people and property, but they’re also helping to protect the environment. The statewide code was recently updated to include new standards for green building, including more energy efficient windows, lighting and insulation. Building plan review staff will be helping to educate the public, contractors and others on these new requirements.

Groves-Grace is passionate about her job. She’s the first person in the county to receive the state’s new residential plan review certification even though she’s already certified in building, electrical, plumbing and mechanical codes. However, she had heard that others had trouble passing the exam, and she wanted to prove her skills.

What gives her the greatest satisfaction at work?

“I like helping my customers,” she said. “I like showing them how the code can work for them.”

Katherine Wallace, Solid Waste Collection

Katherine Wallace, Solid Waste CollectionKatherine Wallace’s day begins long before many reach for the morning alarm. She's a driver and crew leader working for the Division of Solid Waste Collection and Recycling. Her crew— one of about 35 operating in the county each day — and their colleagues collect trash, recyclables and yard waste from nearly 45,000 households each week.

Maintaining environmentally-responsible communities is one of their primary goals. Wallace knows that achieving this goal is only possible when county staff work in partnership with residents.

“I enjoy the ability to interact with the residents I serve on a weekly basis,” she said. “I am proud to play a role in helping maintain cleaner, greener neighborhoods where I work.”

In 2010, Fairfax County recycled 42 percent of the total waste generated — nearly 472,000 tons of material — making the county among the leaders in our region when it comes to recycling. The county also became the first in the state to add a hybrid trash truck to its vehicle fleet.

While the county’s commitment to building greener communities is second to none, Wallace knows that there’s another significant priority as she and her crew pull out of the lot each day.

“Working for Solid Waste is not as easy as it may seem to some people,” she related. “We operate a massive piece of equipment in all kinds of weather conditions and situations, and around all kinds of drivers.”

A recent study showed that sanitation workers have the fifth most dangerous job in the nation. To help them stay safe, staff – particularly drivers – receive extensive training and are held to high standards on the road.

Like clockwork, five days a week, 52 weeks a year — with the exception of Christmas Day — Katherine Wallace and her colleagues take to the road. Their names, in many cases, go unknown, yet their work benefits everyone who lives in the county. 

Dennis Holder, Capital Facilities

Dennis Holder, Capital Facilities Dennis Holder’s work is visible to everyone, although you may not know it. He’s one of 14 project managers in Capital Facilities who oversee the design of county buildings from libraries to fire stations to administration buildings.

Just step into the award-winning Martha Washington Library, his first project, to see what he and the other managers do.

“We interpret the needs of the user into architectural language,” said Holder, a licensed architect. This includes what both the public and county staff need from a building.

As an example, the library uses a simple, classic design that serves the building’s purpose while being visually striking, he said. The building also includes a rain garden and tree boxes that filter 100 percent of the stormwater from the site, features that the community wanted.

Project managers begin their work with a study of how the building will be used. This, along with experience gained from other projects, informs the design. From this study, a conceptual design is drafted, and this concept leads to the production of even more detailed designs. At each step of the process, more detail is added until a final building plan gets drawn up.

Incorporating green features is also an important part of the job. County policy requires that many of its new buildings meet green standards. Martha Washington is a good example. It was designed with large windows to bring natural light into almost all occupied areas. This should help cut electricity bills by 35 percent. The building also uses other energy- and water-saving features like sensors that dim the lights when not needed and waterless urinals.

What does Holder want people to know about his work? To get the job done right, it takes time. In fact, it can take a year to a year and half to develop the design documents necessary to construct a building. It’s no different for private developers, and the county’s project managers are following a tried and true process.

The results speak for themselves. Martha Washington achieved a green building certification that’s higher than the county standard, and it was selected as a 2011 National Public Works Project of the Year.

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