Mike Ramsey doesn’t want a pat on the back, but he doesn’t think his crews have to play second fiddle to other municipal services, either. The Westmont, Ill., public works director has been in the profession since age 15, worked in every sector, and been at the helm for a number of emergencies.
“Every day you turn on your tap and out comes water,” he says. “We don’t get or need a thank you for that service, but we’re out here every day making sure our city runs smoothly.”
When he discovered the American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) pipe-tapping competition almost 20 years ago, he saw a way to elevate the profile of government employees who ensure communities have safe drinking water. His 10-employee Water Division maintains 90 miles of (mostly) cast iron main; 1,250 fire hydrants; 1,200 valves; and performs 40 tests every day.
AWWA’s competition pits four-operator teams against the clock as they open a cement-lined ductile iron pipe and install a tap. Teams that win at the local level via AWWA’s 43 sections move to the national competition held during the association’s convention in June.
The competition was getting much more attention in the South and East Coast than the Midwest and Rust Belt. Ramsey’s solution: the Great Lakes Cup, open to any state bordering lake Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and/or Superior.
“Midwest teams complained that they’d practice and practice at their state level and then just get killed by teams on the national level,” he says. “Now they can come together and compete at a level they never had an opportunity to before.” Ramsey said.
Since its inception in 2013, the Great Lakes Cup has seen massive growth. But Ramsey didn’t stop there. After taking the Westmont Crankers to the national finals in 2012, something happened that would forever change his competition focus.
From Dream to Reality
“I had this dream where I bridged the gap between tapping and Meter Madness [another AWWA competition],” Ramsey says. “It involved this competition with a hydrant and when I woke up I knew I had it. Every town has fire hydrants and most all public works employees work on them. It makes for an easy and accessible competition.”
In 2014 he launched Hydrant Hysteria, in which teams of two race to assemble a fire hydrant, with teams from the Illinois Section of the American Water Works Association. By 2017, 17 teams from 24 states were competing at AWWA’s annual convention in both the men’s and women’s divisions. Along the way, he garnered support from the nation’s largest fire hydrant producer: McWane Inc., which gives each team a free hydrant with which to practice. In 2017, the City of Bloomington (Minn.) Blue Birds emerged as national champion with a time of 1:33.60. He’s already gotten more than 17 registrations for next year’s competition.
Ramsey credits years of experience convincing city councils and mayors as key in getting his competitions approved.
“When I present a project, I’m not asking because it’s a personal project of mine, but because there’s value there,” Ramsey says.
Ramsey had another motive behind creating Hydrant Hysteria: promoting maintenance. Westmont annually checks and flushes hydrants, but that’s not always the case in other municipalities.
“They have to make a choice and doing any kind of maintenance is put on the back burner,” he says. “But when it comes to hydrants, people’s lives are at stake.”
Now with a firm footing on the national competition scene, Ramsey has yet again turned his focus. In 2016 he made Illinois the fourth state to hold water tower building competitions. But instead of public works employees, the competitors are 6th through 8th graders.
“The kids loved it and it got them thinking about working in the public sector or becoming engineers,” he says. “I’m working with other states to make it national. Florida gives scholarships to the winners; because this project is about the future, my main goal is helping these kids get to college.”
Competitions aren’t the only interest for a man who’s dedicated his life to public service. The ingenuity that helped Ramsey cement two national competitions helped him develop a public works tool now used nationwide.
“Twenty to 25 years ago I was working on a main break where I had to close a couple valves. I took a valve key and popped open the lid to the valve box. As I was doing this, I was trying to hold a flashlight and adjust the key. After several attempts to close the valve, I dropped the flashlight. I was cold and frustrated but then the idea came to me: why hasn’t someone come up with a lighted valve key?”
Ramsey and a couple of his mechanics designed and produced the first such key, which won AWWA’s 2015 Gimmicks and Gadgets award in 2015. He decided not to pursue a patent, yet again not needing the credit.
“I wasn’t in it to make money; I was in it to make life easier for my crew and other municipalities. Some company will make a profit on it and that’s okay.”
Despite these achievements, Ramsey’s proudest of being an AWWA-certified water operator instructor.
“It’s fulfilling to mentor younger operators and see them grow from the start of the course to the finish,” he says. “I’m also learning from them, so it’s a give-and-take relationship.”
Ramsey’s made a name for himself over the last 30 years in Westmont and beyond. He doesn’t regret any of the late nights or hours of overtime he’s put in during that time.
“Public works is the reason I have a life and career,” he says. “It’s allowed me to meet amazing people. There are a lot of great people in this industry and I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.”