NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — In one of the older buildings on base, tucked away amid the hustle and bustle on the Nellis flight line, Senior Airman Cameron Smith and his wingman are alone.
With his tool box in hand, he assesses the job order his team was called out to take care of — a clogged toilet. As the lights in the bathroom flicker and the overflowing water inches closer towards their boots, they get to work.
Ignoring the not-so-pleasant aroma emitting from the ‘porcelain throne’ his partner passes him his hand-auger, or plumbing snake, and he clears the obstruction in about 45 seconds. Before they can let out a sigh of relief, Smith’s phone rings with another job to complete – fixing a busted water line spraying water 10 feet in the air.
For Smith and other 99th Civil Engineer Squadron water and fuels systems maintenance technicians, the scenario above is an example of a typical morning on the job, but is not the only thing they are responsible for, explained Master Sgt. Fortune Murray, 99th CES water and fuels systems section chief.
“We do a lot more than just go around and plunge toilets,” Murray said. “We take care of all the fire suppression systems and backflow prevention systems, in addition to the plumbing systems. So we can handle anything from a simple plumbing job in the sink to a broken water main. Basically all of the water on base – from the initial supply until it leaves as waste water – gets touched by the shop.”
Since January 2014, the shop has completed 1,860 job orders and spent 5,634 preventative maintenance hours to ensure the base’s continuous water flow is uninterrupted.
“On the water side of the house, we are running 24-hour ops, making sure all the potable water on base stays that way and is properly chlorinated, disinfected and distributed to the correct place,” Smith said. “We also take care of natural gas – the fuel hydrants, pipes, tanks, valves, etc. We’re pipe maintainers pretty much, so if any of the fuel tanks break or any of the pipelines break we take care of it.”
When Red Flag exercises kick off, the water and fuels systems technicians’ job activity is kicked into overdrive, Smith said.
“We really get hammered with non-stop calls for clogged toilets and sinks from buildings that are all out on the flight line,” Smith said. “Not [just] on the flight line, [but] pretty much around the whole base we are constantly having to repair old systems.”
With approximately 35 Airmen and civilians to complete their mission, Murray said daily tasks keep everyone on their toes.
“A lot of other people go into work knowing exactly what they’re going to be doing all day,” Murray said. “Every day is different for us. You could be working on a water main one day, a fuel valve the next, do some interior plumbing the day after, you just never know. I have guys that haven’t been able to check their emails for two-to-three days at a time, because they’re constantly out of the office.”
Although challenging, Murray and Smith agree on how rewarding the job can be if done right.
“People don’t understand how important our job is until it really hits the fan,” Smith said. “I like the fact that we’re kind of unknown and definitely under appreciated. It’s humbling to know how important we are, but nobody knows exactly what we do. We ‘generic it up’ by saying we’re just plumbers, but we really do a lot more.”