Tuesday, 28 January 2020

We've All Done It - haven't we??

I'm pretty sure it is safe to say we have all hard our fair share of 'problems on site', and since the last millennium I've had a few but I'm big enough (and old enough) to share a few with you without fear of (too much) embarrassment and retribution. **This is not a how to do guide, or best practise guide.  In fact quite the opposite is true!**

Surveying Problems (mostly mine but there are a few I was only indirectly involved with)

1) Arriving on site without the instrument, the cardinal sin for a Surveyor.  This was on the one occasion my Assistant had told me that the batteries were on charge so could I grab the kit before I left the office....did you spot mistake number one?  Asking me to remember something when I was plotting the fastest route from my office desk to the car!!  Well as I'm sure you have guessed the instrument remained in the office while we set off early the next day to North London.  Imagine the dismay when we arrived on site and opened the boot!  As luck would have it we didn't waste the trip as there were a few jobs to be done which didn't involve the instrument - but the phone call back to the office was not pretty!! And I'm fairly sure the return visit which had not been priced for did not go down well!

2) Next day (oh yes it gets worse!) tasked with returning to North London via a small site in South London.  Kit all loaded, checked, and checked again.  We headed off to the first site, nice and smooth finished quickly and efficiently.  Packed up 'most' of the kit and went on to North London to complete yesterdays work....slight problem, this was in the days when the data was recorded on an external logger and not on board.  It seems my Assistant (not me this time!) had left the logger on a wall in South London with all of the mornings work!!  Calling the office was not an option (I fear a P45 would have been the result!), so we duly set about hand booking all of the observations over the next few hours (did I mention it was a high precision monitoring job?).  Job done, so back to the first site as the eternal optimist, and this was pre phone or fleet tracking so no one would know what happened.  Luck was back with us, the logger was still sitting on the wall where it had been left!!  Over the course of the next hour we took a very slow drive back to the office as the my Assistant hand typed all of the data from the note book into the logger..... got to the office downloaded and everything was right in the world again.  It could have been soo  much worse, and until now the then boss never found out!  (If you are reading sorry - it was only once and I'm sure it made me a better Surveyor in the long run).

3) Make sure you close the boot of the car!!  Car packed and ready to go, the Senior Surveyor backs out of the parking spot and slowly pulls away.  We reach a road junction and he decides to drop the clutch and speed away....the resulting forward motion shifted the equipment against the boot door which in fact hadn't latched shut.  Open springs the boot and off goes the instrument down the road!!  It's a testament to the instrument and the box, no damage done to box or instrument when we checked it and it's calibration before starting work the next day.  They don't make them like they used to!

4) Surveying 101, always attach the tribrach to the tripod before turning away.  In the days of vertical plummets it was fairly standard to separate the tribrach from the instrument while setting up.  You centre and level the tribrach before putting the instrument on top to start work.  So tripod set, tribrach levelled and centred.  You turn around to get the instrument and lose your balance slightly.  The only thing close by to grab for balance is the tripod, normally not a problem just a pain having to set up again.  On this occasion I had management level and centre without actually screwing the tribrach back on, so said tribrach slides off the tripod, clips the legs and...…..oh did I mention I was working on an oil jetty half a mile out at sea...….falls off the jetty into the sea!!  The boss was not amused when I start my recount of this incident with....funny story but.....

5) Health & Safety - you are joking.  Before the days of fixed 360 prisms, we had circular prisms sitting in a plastic housing (often wedged with paper to stop them spinning).  Carrying out the survey you are constantly checking the prism is pointing the right direction and hasn't twisted in the mount to look downwards.  On this particular day I was in a dry suit surveying a structure on a tidal river (yes the dry suit was the health & safety), this involved a large amount of clambering and climbing on a wooden structure which, being in a tidal estuary, was prone to slippery patches.  I had circumnavigated this structure (and others) during the day without any problems.  Last few points and we were done home and dry, carefully placed my foot onto a cross beam and as I shifted my weight I slipped, reaching out I grabbed a support, clattering the detail pole against the structure in the process.  Quietly smug that I'd styled out the slip I carried on across to the next point, set the base of the pole, checked the level, and them the......oh shit where was the prisim…...during my antics the clattering of the pole had knocked the prism out of it's plastic holder into the flowing river below...RIP.

6) Seen one field, seen them all.  A lovely survey on a warm sunny day.  Knocked off the work in a morning, headed back to the office, processed the data, and handed it over for checking.  Next day the boss commended me on an excellent survey, but asked why I had surveyed the field on the opposite side of the road to the site - much to his amusement!!

7) It is important for the Surveyor to keep his assistant in their place, so when the opportunity for a wind up occurs it is too good to miss.  Arrive at the office as usual, the Assistant loads the equipment for the day, while the Surveyor gets the job file (makes his coffee) and a quick briefing if needed.  On this day I made a quick pre site comfort stop before going out to the car.  My Assistant told me he was ready to go, and went out to the car, so I nipped to the little boys room, and on my way out noticed my batteries were still on charge in the office...….so safely stashed in my pocket off we went.  Reached site and had a quick look around, before I knocked in the first nail and ask the Assistant to set up the instrument and get ready to start while I installed a few more stations.  Usually only a quick job, but on this occasion milked it a little longer than needed before returning to the station to find an Assistant (only his second day) looking very worried with half my boot out on the floor.  A little sheepishly he admitted he'd forgotten the batteries, and would need to phone someone to get them brought out.  Well why leave it their I told him the only person at the office was the boss, so he could call him and ask him (colour disappearing from his face fast)....or use the batteries still stashed safely in my pocket.   A tough life lesson but he never did it again.

8) Another fine mess - again messing about on the river happily working our way down the river mapping sections with two poles and a  prism while the Surveyor stayed dry on land with the instrument and fourth assistant.  Seemed to be going far to smoothly, and it turns out it was our progress had been rapid and efficient.  It turns out the progress was in somewhat assisted by the tide which was really starting to show it's effects as we reached the end of the survey area.  Job done though time to paddle home....or not as the case was.  Regardless of how hard we paddled we were still going the wrong way, and not one person and thought to bring a rope!!!  After half and hour or nothing we decided Plan B was the only solution, and I don't know if you have every tried it but pulling an inflatable against the tide using the thick reeds and your bare hands is neither fun or rewarding.  On the plus side we never made the same mistake again...we got someone else to do the boat work!!

9) Setting your alarm when working a spilt night/day week is a must, and these days with Alexa (others types do exist) an easy task!  Well it turns out the only thing better than Alexa is a phone call from your boss at 10am the next morning asking if I had planned to work today is very effective - it did mean I missed all of the morning traffic, and thankful it seems this was a very regular thing for people just into the night/day system.  Mistake made, embarrassment done, time to move on.

10) Spray paint is a necessary evil.  It might look unsightly but for a Surveyor it is a god send, and you only realise how much when you forget one day, hammer a peg into the ground for your next station, walk back to the instrument to finish up.  Then you lift the instrument and turn to walk to that peg you'd just put in, that timber coloured peg flash with the light brown dirt on the ground.....I never did find the station and had to reset on the previous station and put in a new peg!  Lesson learnt always mark your stations somehow.

11) As every good Surveyor knows it is important to get a good feel for the site, how you are going to approach certain elements, where the difficulties might be, how to positions your stations and close your traverses.  On the way to site it is in the back of your mind, but as you get closer to start looking out for possible benchmarks (yes pre GPS), parking places, the site.  Then once at the site you are looking at everything.  One important lesson I was taught (whilst in the passenger seat) is whilst the site is important hitting the bollard as you drive into the car park is a definite no no....on the plus side it was one less thing to survey.

12) We've all been there, right?  Tracing a drainage system through an oily rail depot, lifting ever cover you see to follow the route of that all important surface of foul run.  Gone through the first ten covers of the run no problems managed with the resonance (or hitting a hammer on the previous cover) and buckets of water.  We then ground to a halt, every possible route we could hear the hammer echoing and see water flowing...time to crack open the tracing dye.  Non toxic but bright green, what could possibly go wrong.  Add a small amount to the water and pour away, sounds simple.  Ten buckets later and still nothing!!!  We were literally pulling our hair out....nothing else for it, had to be lunch.  Cleaned up, grabbed our lunch and wander up the embankment to sit in the sun overlooking to beautiful bright green river....oh yes we had found the final exit point for all of that green dye slowly turning a Welsh river green!!

I'm sure over time I will come back to this little number, and add others as I remember them (or they happen!)

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Authors of Our Own Downfall

You know we're sitting on four million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder. Makes you feel good, doesn't it? - Armaggedon 1998

OK not quite the same scenario, but the meaning can equally be applied to Land Surveyors, it is a race to the bottom in terms of price to win the work regardless of what we are told or advised.

You buy that fancy new piece of kit which the salesman has told you will save a day and a half on a two day job.  So based on standard surveys and 1000 points a day a survey that would have taken 4-5 days, instead takes 1-2 days.  Big difference in price, and the quandry.  Price at 1-2 days win the work but don't get the real benefit of the kit, price at 4-5 days to get the cost benefit of the new kit but risk losing the work.  Either way the office time remains constant.  It is a problem faced by all survey firms at one time or another, and whilst we'd all like to say we held firm on price and pocketed the time saving it never  happens because there is alwaus someone willing to slash their prices to win the work...the race to the bottom.  If all survey firms toe the same party line and reap the benefits of a fast survey time then everything is fine but in an increasingly competive industry you'll never get everyone on the same page.  So to coin a phrase - 'the choice is yours'.

This keep it cheap or lose the work mentality is now leading to great industry wide problems.  The demand for Surveyors is increasing, but firms cannot pay their Surveyors more because the price squeeze from a competitive market means the cuts have to be made somewhere.  The resulting cost saving often comes at the expense of staff training or pay rises.   Eventually we will be doing jobs at cost, with no room for error just in an effort to win the work and stay afloat.....

Now fast forward ten years, you have a little more grey hair and a lot more wrinkles after battling to stay in the industry, whilst maintaining a solid work/life balance, and ensuring the standards you've set yourself haven't dropped.  How has the industry changed?  There are a few more 'independent' survey firms out there along with a usual number of high profile names, and a wide selection in the medium size companies each within their own little bubble.  The big difference is the age of the Surveyors, the industry is evolving, technology is changing, but the people in that industry are just ten years older, the pool of new talent coming in is slowly evaporating as people look to more lucrative careers in other areas within the sector, or in a totally different sector, or a completely different country .  Our talent pool has been supplemented with skilled overseas (mainly European) workers who are more than able to take on the work and succeed.

Wham (no not the group) Brexit happens, does this mean the European talent pool will soon be harder to access, and that slowly evaporating home grown talent pool has got even smaller?  What will it all mean - answers on a postcard to 10 Downing Street!?

For those of us in the industry on the wrong side of 40 it probably won't be an issue, but you might see your fees go up as the demand for Surveyors far out strips the available supply...happy days.  The knock on effect of this supply/demand issue is higher fees, therefore higher salaries, thus that evaporating talent pool will start to fill up again as Land Surveying looks to be better financial proposition.....and the cycle starts all over again!!!

Ride out the strom, good times are coming faster than you might think.