Operations Engineer: Ahmed, you’ve recently been named Professional Young Engineer of the Year by the Pump Centre, a network of 100-plus companies working in the water industry’s engineering sector. Congratulations. Where did it all begin?
Ahmed Yusuf: I studied electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Birmingham and graduated with a Masters’ degree. From there, I joined the Environment Agency (EA) on the MEICA (Mechanical, Electrical, Instrumentation, Control and Automation) graduate scheme in 2016.
Since joining, I have moved around a fair bit to experience different parts of the business, including mechanical and electrical engineering projects, the asset performance team, the MEICA directorate (asset policy, standards and procedures), and also I’ve spent a bit of time with our framework contractors.
The scheme is all about the development of the graduates, so each of us are allocated a mentor and we produce quarterly reports in which you demonstrate the competencies that you have achieved. The programme is about four years, but it is all done on an individual basis, based on your development and experiences.
Operations Engineer: You work in the Midlands team and are based at the Fradley office near Lichfield, with the aim of reducing flood risk. What responsibilities do you have as an engineer?
Ahmed Yusuf: There is a range of things that I get involved in [and] no such thing as a typical day. In the MEICA team, the bread and butter is maintenance of our assets. We have hundreds of flood and coastal risk management assets, as well as water resources assets. These either protect people and infrastructure from flooding or they facilitate the transfer of water, for example, we have a groundwater transfer scheme in Shropshire that is used when there is prolonged dry weather to supply water to Birmingham.
[My role] is supporting the mechanical and electrical element of that, such as pumping and automated penstocks, and advising our internal customers (the asset owners) to ensure that the assets are maintained as required and comply with any standards.
From the maintenance point-of-view, there is a lot of teamwork involved. We have an integrated team of mechanical and electrical engineers who all sit together. Being electrical, I can liaise with my mechanical counterpart and discuss mechanical elements, such as hydraulics, and exchange advice. Individually, we each also have our own projects that we lead on from a technical point-of-view. This includes engaging with stakeholders and asset owners and following regulations. We try to get out as often as possible because that is the easiest way to understand issues, but there is also office work: paperwork, risk assessments and utilising our computerised maintenance management system.
Operations Engineer:To win the Pump Centre award, you had to present, to a panel of judges, a summary of some of the work you have done over the past year. This included the completion of a peer review in New Orleans, USA, on storm surge barriers. Tell me more…
Ahmed Yusuf: The peer review in New Orleans was through I-STORM (International Network of Storm Surge Barriers). It is a network that was formed in 2006 to improve the operation, safety and reliability of storm surge barriers worldwide. The EA is a core member, along with Rijkswaterstaat (the Dutch Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management), Venice Water Authority and the US Army Corp of Engineers.
I-STORM takes on the model from the World Association of Nuclear Operators, formed after the Chernobyl disaster, to improve the safety and reliability of nuclear power stations, using peer reviews – a review of a major asset by peers and colleagues, looking at the organisation, activity involved, processes followed, and technology used. It is a tailored assessment with the aim of improving assets’ performance, not an audit. It is all about openness and collaboration.
I was originally involved in an asset resilience project at the EA. From that work, I was invited to New Orleans, which is home to the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System – a $14.5bn system in southern Louisiana that was built after Hurricane Katrina.
The EA, the US Army Corp of Engineers, Rijkswaterstaat, and the South Louisiana Flood Protection Authority (host site) were all a part of the peer review. What we did was walk around the site over a 10-day period and conduct various inspections, observations and dialogues and discussions to identify any areas of improvement, but also best practice, with the aim of providing the Flood Protection Authority with a series of areas that they could focus on to meet their ‘gaps to excellence’, as well as capturing and sharing best practice.
There were many things that we got back from that trip. From a design perspective, for example, one of the decisions they made to improve the reliability of the system was the installation of splash pads on the dry side of the flood wall. If water got over the top of the system then it wouldn’t scour the foundations of the wall, meaning that the wall kept its integrity, allowing it to stand after an event.
Operations Engineer: Another item of work involved being the technical lead on panel replacements for groundwater pumping stations. What did you do?
Ahmed Yusuf: This was a series of groundwater pumping stations that are used to regulate the River Severn to ensure that there is enough flow within the river to provide water to Birmingham. There were nine groundwater pumping stations: these were borehole pumps that would pump from between 50 to 100m down from aquifers, through a pipe network onto an outfall on to the River Severn.
The panels came to the end of their design life and were due a refurbishment. I was the technical lead for this project. This began with designing the User Requirement Specification and issuing the tender documentation. From there, we evaluated the tender responses and, following contract award, had our contractors put together the functional design specification, which I reviewed and made improvements on. An example of a design decision was improving the efficiency of our sites by installing VSDs, which allows us to more efficiently operate the asset, as opposed to the previous control philosophy.
[I also had to] ensure that we were compliant with G5/4 Recommendations on harmonic distortion, our internal MEICA Standards and also manage the health and safety of the project. It took around eight months from the tender to the commissioning stage.
Operations Engineer:You have now been at the EA for three years.Has the use of technology risen over that time?
Ahmed Yusuf: With cyber security, we are thinking about where we have strategically important assets and making sure that they are cyber secure. Equally, there has been a rise in the use of sensors and condition monitoring. It is about getting out of the ‘we have always done it this way’ mindset. So, yes, technology is being implemented more and more.
Operations Engineer:As part of winning the Pump Centre award, you received entrance to a training course with the Pump Centre. What do you plan on doing?
Ahmed Yusuf: The Pump Centre provides various courses on metals, pumps, drives and controls. I’ll look to do the pump and pumping systems course to develop my knowledge and apply it in the workplace. I’ll also be thinking about progressing from being a graduate to a more responsible role within the EA MEICA team.