By Jason Fryer
Damage Prevention Liaison
The name Cliff Swoape kept popping up as I brainstormed who to feature in our newly titled “Damage Prevention MVP” article. Cliff has just become the director of human resources and communications for Middle Tennessee Natural Gas Utility District (MTNG). Counting his time as a part-time employee when he was in college, he has been with MTNG for 32 years. Cliff has filled many roles in the organization, from meter painter to service technician to customer service, and eventually getting into his passion as the manager of safety and training, a job he held for 22 years. I call Cliff a “Pioneer for Damage Prevention” and he received many awards and accolades. He has also chaired many committees in his years in the natural gas industry. Most recently, he received The Silver Flame Award from the Tennessee Gas Association at their annual meeting in Destin, Florida in 2019. The Silver Flame Award is the highest honor the association awards. It reflects exemplary support and dedication to the natural gas industry in Tennessee. I got to sit down and interview Cliff for this article, and in the following paragraphs I will highlight what makes him so special to damage prevention and a huge asset to MTNG.
My first encounter with Cliff was back in 2014, my first year as a damage prevention liaison for Tennessee811. I don’t recall which PIPE (Partners In Protecting Everyone) meeting it was, but I remember his famous “show and tell.” His examples of damages would change every year. To give a backdrop of why Cliff would have a “show and tell,” I will first explain that Tennessee811 gives each of its PIPE sponsors a chance to talk about their system at the end of the program presentation. Cliff takes a different approach than anyone else and his enthusiastic message always captures the attention of the entire venue. Visit www.tnpipe.com to keep up with our 2020 meetings – it’s really something you need to see for yourself. Cliff says, “You gotta have fun and you have to make it relevant.” And that’s exactly what he does. Here’s an example: Cliff holds up a piece of pipe where a water contractor inserted a 1 ½ inch section of PVC (with a valve) into a 2-inch PE gas main so that he could shut off the flow of product if it hit the line again farther along his project. Then there’s pipe versus mad engineer where the engineer ran a wooden stake through a 2-inch pipe. Cliff said, “It was a construction job and an engineer was putting up erosion control and ran that wooden stake right through our 2-inch pipe.” And one of my all-time favorites is when he holds up a pipe that has been duct taped. He always ends with his famous quote: “Contrary to popular belief, duct tape does not fix everything! Call 811 before you dig!”
Speaking of the PIPE program, Cliff was a key part of the small group that worked with our very own Kathy Quartermaine to launch the program in the early 2000s. Cliff, Kathy, and others came up with a program that would work on a local level for both distribution and transmission companies. Cliff says, “…the original name was not PIPE though.” He said, it was Tennessee Network for Safe Excavating and Emergency Response, which was shortened to the acronym TN4SEER. Cliff said, “We operated under that cumbersome name for at least a year before switching to PIPE.” MTNG currently sponsors seven of these PIPE meetings. Cliff also went on to brag about what fantastic job Kathy has done with the PIPE presentations and how the program has evolved.
Another damage prevention innovation worth mentioning is MTNG’s “Training Town.” Cliff describes it as a hands-on learning facility located at MTNG’s corporate office in Smithville. Cliff says, “I tried to build in training examples for everything that I ever felt uncertain of or scared of when I was a service technician. It includes how to properly set a meter, do a leak survey, locate lines, handle a high-pressure line break and everything in between.” Cliff modestly gives credit to others in the natural gas industry for the ideas that he brought together in designing Training Town. He went to look at other systems that already had one, like Leak City in Athens, Alabama. He said that his layout has several similarities to theirs because he thought they had a sound design. Also, he talked with Washington Gas in Washington, D.C. about their system and their biggest problem was what they would name their roads. Washington Gas named all their streets after the towns in which they had compressor stations to avoid political turmoil, so Cliff used names of counties that MTNG has offices in because he thought Washington’s idea was brilliant. He visited several other sites and used industry contacts to learn from others’ experiences.
As part of their public awareness efforts, Cliff and MTNG purchase television and radio spots. The statewide Tennessee Gas Association (TGA) radio and TV campaign through the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters has been leveraged into nearly $2 million worth of airtime annually to educate the public while promoting natural gas safety and damage prevention. Cliff was given a proclamation from TGA in 2009 for his and MTNG’s efforts in developing this program.
Another way to educate the general public is to target schools and universities. The “Blue Flame University” is a program that was originally targeted at 4th grade students but has been tailored to other ages including college students at Middle Tennessee State University. Cliff is the “professor” and he educates students about natural gas and the importance of safety, especially the 811 message of calling before you dig. He also teaches them about different jobs like geologists, meter readers, engineers and service technicians. His grand finale is the explosion chamber, which displays what happens when a gas and air mix in the explosive range is introduced to an ignition source. “If you want to feel good about your job, take controlled fire into a 4th grade classroom,” says Cliff, “the reaction is, well…energizing.”
Cliff was a natural choice for the inaugural issue of “Damage Prevention MVP” because of his care and concern for human life. He’s made a huge impact on damage prevention efforts at MTNG and across the utility industry in Tennessee because he looks at damage prevention from the human side of things, not just in terms of lost product and repair costs. He says, “It’s all about the people and protecting them – not just our people, but also the general public.” Thanks for all you do, Cliff.