Controlling Sydney - Air traffic control
Alan Freeman, the air traffic control line manager at Sydney airport shows us what it is like working in the towerPT2M43S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-25pe4 620 349 September 11, 2012
All around the city, tucked away in soundproof, blast-proof, high-security rooms, teams of men and women (but mostly men) stare intently into banks of computer screens, monitoring, correcting, fixing, tweaking and handling crises large and small. Day and night they each play their vital role in a real-world, high-stakes version of The Truman Show.
These are Sydney's control centres. From water, traffic, buses and trains to planes, electricity, bushfires and security, these rooms touch almost every aspect of our daily lives and most of us don't even know they are there.
If nothing is going on, it can be a deadly boring job because they are sitting there, waiting for something to happen.
If Sydney were a living creature, they'd be the organs controlling all the vital processes that keep it alive.
Traffic operations controller Wesley Peters at the Sydney Traffic Control Centre. Photo: Dean Sewell
At the Sydney Transport Management Centre (TMC) in Eveleigh, about 18 specialists sit at desks staring at horseshoe arrays of four or five computer screens. Most of the wall at one end of the room is taken up by a vast video screen split into 20 or more smaller screens showing camera footage of rush-hour traffic around the city, interspersed with maps and bar charts.
Bus, rail and ferry specialists sit alongside operators monitoring traffic lights and congestion, each concentrating on their little piece of the transport jigsaw and working together to solve problems that pop up minute to minute.
At any moment they are ready to deal with anything from a car inconsiderately left in a clearway to a collapsing crane, as happened in Broadway in November.
Traffic operations controller Melinda Eisele is the overseer of traffic flows over Sydney Harbour Bridge, Australia's busiest traffic corridor. Photo: Dean Sewell
"You never know what you're going to get in this place," spokesman Dave Wright says. "You've got to keep your cool. Everyone knows their job and everyone is an expert in their field.
"I've been here for three years and I've never seen anyone lose it. We just do the best with what we've got. There is a lot of pressure and assertiveness and after a major incident, we all go home pretty exhausted."
The minute level of control the operators have is astonishing. From manually tweaking the phasing of a particular set of traffic lights to ease traffic flow to shifting the median strips on the Harbour Bridge with the flick of a joystick, they are truly masters of all they survey on their screens.
But regardless of how much the technology puts them in control, they are still at the mercy of natural events – particularly the weather – which can have enormous knock-on effects throughout the whole complex system.
While it's not quite the flapping of a butterfly's wing in the Amazon causing a tornado in China, rain can cause traffic problems right around the city simply because fiddling with umbrellas means passengers take that much longer to get on and off buses.
The TransGrid control centre in Eastern Creek is a smaller version of the TMC with the video of streams of traffic replaced by a huge diagram of the state's electricity network, rendered in pleasing tones of white, green and purple. And here the weather is also a major preoccupation for the three operators sitting at their terminals making sure the huge network is ticking over efficiently, providing the right amount of power in the right places to meet demand.
"If nothing is going on, it can be a deadly boring job because they are sitting there, waiting for something to happen," says Lionel Smyth, the manager in charge of the network. "They are constantly looking at what happens next. What's the weather doing? Are there storms or wind? And they are looking at the load [demand], which is dependent on the weather."
And what happens when everyone switches on the kettle at half-time during the grand final? Smyth says it barely registers. It's the weather – particularly all those airconditioners – that drives demand above everything else.
It's the same story at Sydney Water's Parramatta control room, where three operators watch over the health of the state's water supply, also keeping a wary eye on weather patterns. The atmosphere is calm and subdued.
"It won't be quite as relaxed as it is now if we have a big storm come through," the manager, Mike Wassell, says. "One of the key things is that they understand procedure and how to keep calm in a crisis – of which there are many, the least of which might be a severe rainstorm that tends to fill up all the sewers. The most extreme could be severe bushfire, major weather events, giardia incidents . . ."
The system is designed to be automatic, with the operators there only to monitor and arrange repairs, but the computers have their limits.
"If, with the best of intentions and planning, a whole bunch of things that you could never have thought of happening do happen, it comes down to three people in there making decisions," Wassell says.
For the operators in the City of Sydney's security camera control room at Town Hall, making split-second decisions is second nature.
The three technicians stare intently at their screens, each showing vision from one of the 80-plus cameras around the city. It's weirdly hypnotic as the lenses pick up a corner of George Street, then a snippet of Chinatown, then a section of Hyde Park. And through it all, streams of people go about their business, largely unaware of the team watching over them. All the operators become expert in sensing when trouble is brewing among the weekend crowds, at which point they call in the police.
"You're looking for the way people are walking, the way they are carrying themselves," a supervisor, Paul Spyrakis, says.
"Quite often it doesn't start with a punch; it starts a lot more subtly than that. Even walking down the street I can pick people and think, 'I'm avoiding that guy'."
Inevitably, the operators witness some unpleasant incidents, particularly in hot spots such as Kings Cross and the southern end of George Street.
"I've monitored awful things that have stayed with me but you have to detach yourself from it," Spyrakis says.
"At that point you are just focusing on helping the person who needs help."
But, ideally, the operators should be able to intervene before the problems start.
"If we can get in early, get the police there and stop things escalating, then it's a great thing to do," Spyrakis says.
There are two things you notice immediately on stepping into the air-traffic control tower at Sydney Airport: the view and the atmosphere.
The view is extraordinary. There are hundreds of taller vantage points around the city but, while the tower is barely 50 metres tall, the unrestricted vista around 360 degrees is stunning.
Then there's the atmosphere. In popular imagination it should be tense and perhaps a little frenetic, but here all is calm and quiet as the seven controllers, mostly dressed in jeans and T-shirts, go about their business directing the complex activity in front of them.
"What did you expect?" Alan Freeman asks, drily. "You don't want stressed controllers."
This is a fair point — calm and deliberate is what you want to see in such a high-stakes role.
"You need to be cold," he says. "You want a controller who can watch something go wrong and make sure nothing else goes wrong so it doesn't escalate. The last thing you want is someone throwing their arms up and walking away from the console."
Freeman is a tall man with a shaved head, big moustache and killer handshake. He's been in the business 32 years and loves everything about airports and aeroplanes. He's also fiercely proud of the people he supervises.
"This is first-grade," he says. "Australian controllers are employed all over the world, and this is the busiest airport in the southern hemisphere."
The controllers look after the traffic on the ground and airborne within six kilometres of the airport. What does it take to do that efficiently and safely?
"It requires a spatial imagination," he says. "It really is like three-dimensional chess. The good controllers only realise the aircraft that are conflictions. Some of these aircraft are never going to come near each other, so you take them out of your mind and you put your whole concentration on the ones that are conflictions and developing the best order."
It's clear that, after more than three decades, Freeman still gets an enormous kick out of what he does. "Look at it," he says, indicating the runways and aircraft in front of him. "It's like the greatest train set ever."