Lee Fights Fires With Engineering

December 5, 2014

Lee, Aaron colorWhen the great San Francisco Earthquake of April 18, 1906, was over, it left a major portion of the city in ruin. However, most of the damage was not caused by the earthquake but by the ensuing fires – the worst in the history of the U.S. With over 300 main water breaks and more than 23,000 broken water services, it greatly reduced the water pressure in the downtown area, making it more difficult to put out the blaze. When the fire was finally extinguished 4 days later, all of the downtown area was completely destroyed.

It was Marsden Manson, the city engineer and a member of ASCE, who 2 years later conducted a study of 250 cities throughout the world to develop plans for a guaranteed water supply system for the sole purpose of fire protection. The solution was the design and construction of the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) – a separate and distinct water supply system for fire protection use only – with the Fire Department solely responsible for its maintenance, operation, and development.

Over the ensuing century, the city has grown and the AWSS has steadily improved and increased from the original 72 miles of mains and 889 hydrants to a 1997 total of 150 miles of 8-to-20-inch-diameter mains and 1,550 hydrants for a city of 47 square miles.

Using hydraulic and reliability modeling, Aaron Lee, P.E., M.ASCE, a civil engineer in AECOM’s water group in San Francisco, recently completed the capital planning study for the AWSS. Lee’s work specifically uses probabilistic methods that determine project priorities to improve the system. The primary goal of this work, says Lee, is to make San Francisco more resilient against potential impacts from fires following earthquakes.

“I am most proud of my contributions to the capital planning study for San Francisco’s Auxiliary Water Supply System,” says Lee, who for past 2 years has also led an internship program at AECOM that, in partnership with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, introduces high school students to design and engineering. “Prior to this work, the system had not been evaluated to determine its performance and to set performance goals. Through this project, we created and used unique modeling tools to guide us in making our recommendations, and I am particularly proud of our collaboration with all the project stakeholders in developing solutions that would greatly benefit public safety in San Francisco.”

In addition to the AWSS, Lee is currently serving as the sustainability manager on the design-build team for the City of Davis, California, wastewater treatment plant improvement project, using the Envision rating system to guide sustainable design and construction practices.

“My work,” notes Lee, “primarily focuses on planning studies for water/wastewater utilities using hydraulic and reliability modeling to provide capital project recommendations. In addition, I’ve been involved with my local [San Francisco] chapter of Engineers Without Borders–USA (EWB) for the past three years and am currently serving as the project manager to bring reliable and clean water to three villages in the Fiji Islands.”

With EWB, he has participated in 3 project implementations that have improved drinking water quality and made water distribution system improvements.

“Although my professional work and relationships are important,” stressed Lee, “I believe the contributions that we can make to our greater communities beyond our professional work make a large difference.”

He concludes, “Recognition as a New Face of Civil Engineering is an opportunity for me to represent a small slice of the diversity in the field of civil engineering, both in terms of the type of work and the backgrounds of fellow civil engineers. I hope to gain from this recognition an opportunity to inspire other young and would-be civil engineers.

“I believe that this generation of civil engineers is very interested in being collaborative and working across disciplines, which I am wholly supportive of. The complexities of our engineering challenges require a more open and agile mentality and I definitely hope to embody these principles through my career.”

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