COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | TOM LEMMON

Value on display every day

Those of us who wear the hard hat to work every day on the front line of our most critical construction projects have appreciated the safeguards of having qualified contractors bidding on the job.

These safeguards ensure that taxpayers are receiving the best quality work on every project that our tax dollars are committed to. Prequalifying bidders allows only competent, responsible contractors to be entrusted with building our public infrastructure and facilities.

Nearly 22 months after calling on San Diego’s Sloan Electromechanical Services & Sales to help solve a major problem with the electrical systems controlling water pumps critical to cleanup activities after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster, Japanese citizens and government officials are still reaping the benefits of Sloan’s groundbreaking work.

After the earthquake and tsunami, Japanese authorities announced that radioactive iodine-131 levels had been detected at levels higher than considered safe for infants at 18 water purification plants near the nuclear plant.

Japanese authorities enlisted a Southern California company with radioactive water filter technology who then turned to Sloan to design pumps and control systems to filter the water. The challenge: Equipment had to be designed and built remotely, then transferred to Japan, where it could be quickly installed and configured on site. Sloan, a member of the Electrical Apparatus Service Association, went to work and had soon developed a plan. Sloan’s employees, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local 569 then began work on this demanding job.

For five weeks from April through June 2011, Sloan built the equipment to get the job done. A team was dispatched to oversee installation of the filtration devices and get them up and running on site. Sloan engineers stateside worked overnight shifts to match up their work hours with installation crews on the ground to get the control systems installed and operating.

Six months later, detectable radioactivity is down 99.9 percent from the levels measured at the project’s outset, and the Sloan-designed systems are working to this day without a hitch.

That’s the way things should be, and it’s how the company has operated for over 70 years, since it began as the Frank W. Sloan Electric Company in 1938. The company has been locally owned the whole time, with Bob Gray purchasing the company in 1968 and his son, Jerry, buying it in 1985 and heading up the firm for 27 years.

Sloan is one of more than 1,900 member companies in the Electrical Apparatus Service Association, an organization dedicated to process equipment solutions and research to keep its members up-to-date with state-of-the art information. Jerry serves as the Association’s Regional Director for Region 7 – a territory that encompasses the West Coast along with Alaska, Hawaii and the Rocky Mountain states.

This commitment to quality carries throughout the company in being ISO9001-2008 accredited, and is on display whenever Sloan employees are at work – sometimes when they’re fixing problems created by workers at other firms that may not have the same access to training and education.

As an example, Sloan was recently underbid by $900 by a non-union contractor for the job of removing, overhauling and re-installing a water pump at a local city storm water pump station. The contractor that won the job with a $25,000 bid neglected to verify that the water supply was off before removing the pump, ultimately causing about $700,000 in damages.

Called in to clean up the mess, Sloan’s crews stopped the flooding within 24 hours, but it took nearly three more months to repair the flood damage to the pump station.

Such issues with ensuring that contracts funded by taxpayer dollars are awarded to responsible bidders are unfortunately not unprecedented. In another incident several years ago, catastrophic damage was caused at two diesel-powered pumps in Mission Beach when operators forgot to pre-lube the devices before activating them. Again, Sloan was called in to fix the damage, at a cost much higher than performing the work properly in the first place. When the pump station flooded again two years ago, Sloan proposed and installed innovative strategies on an emergency basis to solve several problems.

While there are certainly plenty of other suitable contractors able to capably and professionally service the needs of city infrastructure and other large-scale projects, Sloan believes that progress needs to be made in qualifying bidders to ensure that only those fully competent and capable of doing a job right the first time are trusted with government expenditures. The cost of doing the job right the first time is, in a project’s lifetime analysis, the lowest total cost.

To this end, Sloan has suggested a system involving third-party quality certification, where a neutral authority is tasked with reviewing the history of contractors offering work on all projects to ensure that the public’s money ends up in the hands of trustworthy and proven service providers.

The San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council has always supported the concept of ensuring that taxpayers are receiving the best quality work on every public project It is our hope that the County of San Diego, as well as all of the cities within our County, will realize the benefits that can be obtained by pre-qualifying bidders to further safeguard that competent, responsible contractors are entrusted with our tax dollars on civic projects. To that end, we strongly endorse a proposal of this sort and offer our willingness to work with local agencies to put such a program in place.

Lemmon is the business manager of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO overseeing 23 trade union affiliates. For more information about the Building Trades Council, visit www.sdbuildingtrades.com.

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