Redefining the Safety Zone

Redefining the Safety Zone

Peter Bellino ’08


WPI graduates have a history of finding creative ways to use their educations to benefit the world. Among the most challenging—and rewarding—directions alumni have taken involve safety. Peter Bellino ’08, Tom McAloon ’76, and Ross Tsantoulis ’07 have ventured far past what most would consider a comfort zone. Whether protecting the Alaska pipeline against fire, establishing sanitary water conditions in developing countries, or helping rebuild Afghanistan, they have found satisfaction in making this planet a less dangerous place to live.

Peter Bellino’s desk may be in an office in downtown Anchorage, but his responsibilities stretch on for miles—800 miles, in fact. From Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska’s North Slope, to Valdez, the northernmost ice-free port in North America, the four-foot-wide Alaska pipeline zigzags its way through America’s largest state, carrying oil destined for far-flung consumers. Twelve pump stations interrupt its route, places where fire is always a danger. Bellino’s job is to make sure that disaster doesn’t strike. As one of only two fire systems engineers for Alyeska—the service company for the Trans Alaska Pipeline System—he works to maintain safety in one of the engineering wonders of the modern world.

"The pipeline is a city among itself," Bellino says, speaking by phone one snowy Saturday in November, six months after arriving in Alaska. "Being part of this great engineering marvel is like working with a celebrity. It is such a great feat of civil engineering and mechanical engineering."

As a 2008 WPI graduate with a BS degree in civil engineering, Bellino knows exactly how impressive the pipeline is. As a fire protection engineer who will complete his master’s next year, he also realizes the extent of the hazards. Shortly after the pipeline opened in 1977, the project suffered its worst tragedy—a fatal explosion and fire at Pump Station 8 near Fairbanks. During his time with Alyeska, Bellino has had to investigate an incident in Valdez, in which a 15-foot fireball erupted and the flame detectors didn’t go off. The solution: to relocate and increase the number of detectors. Bellino also oversees testing of a variety of detection systems— from gas and smoke to thermal, which he prefers in a state prone to wildfires. He studies the advantages of different fireinerting agents. He manages the paperwork to comply with the guidelines of 40 regulatory agencies.

Since childhood, Bellino has had a fascination with fire. "I hate to admit this," he recalls, "but I always liked fire. I love campfires." In the third grade, when his parents were building a new house in Deerfield, Mass., he would make campfires using scrap wood left at the job site. "I would place the wood in different configurations to start the fire and watch how the flames and smoke would swirl around the pieces of wood," he says. "It was very fascinating to a young mind."

Years later, his very first week at WPI, he discovered his ultimate career path. At new student orientation, fire protection engineering professor David Lucht showed a video called 'Fire Power' about what happens to a house when it catches fire. "I set my heart on that," Bellino says, adding that since the department did not offer an undergraduate degree, he decided to pursue his love of building as a civil engineering major. He did his IQP on response times of fire departments in Plymouth County, and had a summer job with RJA, where he was exposed to the consulting side of the fire protection industry. Through WPI’s Advanced Distance Learning Network, he has deepened his knowledge with graduate courses in fire protection.

Bellino is grateful for the preparation he has received. At any moment, one of the Alyeska technicians—who go up and down the pipeline checking for potential problems— could report a malfunctioning fire panel. Or an actual fire could break out, as it did in Valdez. In the process of reducing the number of pump stations from 12 to five over the next couple of years, Alyeska will require evolving strategies to ensure safe and smooth operations. After more than half a year on the job, as fall was quickly turning to winter, Bellino was still excited—about climbing mountains, cross-country skiing, and meeting challenges extending from one end of the state to another.

Tom McAloon ’76

For most Americans, finding Timor Leste (East Timor) on a map would be a fairly arduous task. Tom McAloon has taken on a far tougher challenge: In November 2008, he began working in the Southeast Asian island nation on a rural water supply project sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The one-time Portuguese colony in the Indonesian archipelago—which became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century—has water conditions that are among the worst in Asia. Only half the population has access to a water supply. Basic sanitation extends to barely a third of the people.

Remarkably, McAloon is unfazed by such dismal statistics. Even more amazingly, he regards his current assignment as a chance not to pity, but to learn about others and to collaborate. "We who are lucky enough to be from prosperous and functioning countries need to work together with people in the developing world and listen to them," he says. "We do not have all the answers for them and neither do they. But together, with luck and perseverance, we can move forward."

points to the idealistic environmental movement of the ’60s and ’70s as an influence. But now, having spent years in places from Azerbaijan and Kosovo to Maldives, he acknowledges, "My views have tempered quite a bit, and a strong dose of realism is called for when working in developing countries." Even though he did not pursue international affairs until well after college, "I credit WPI with piquing my interest in the balance between straight engineering and human behavior," he notes. "The WPI Plan was a big draw for me—an attempt to cultivate the Renaissance Man and Woman. I’m not surprised that I ended up doing something that really requires the ability to look beyond the technical to try to understand (and respect) why people do what they do—even when it results in terrible things like child mortality, illness, and short lives."

After almost two decades in New Hampshire, applying his engineering training to water-related ventures, McAloon faced a very different set of obstacles when he took an overseas position in 1994 with the International Rescue Committee in the Republic of Georgia. Instead of overseeing watershed protection or sewer extensions in a peaceful, organized region, he had to confront the chaos that follows war. He managed a staff of two Nepalese engineers and a team of Georgian engineers to contract out installation of basic water supply, sewer, roofing, windows, doors, and electrical wiring in urban buildings that housed 100 to 1,000 people.

Subsequent positions in a number of trouble spots— including Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq—made McAloon painfully aware of the complex causes of water and sanitation problems. 'It is almost always not as simple as building a new bit of infrastructure,' he explains. 'Just because you have a good technical idea that works in the U.S., it is not usually relevant in a third-world or post-conflict setting.' In Timor Leste, as in many of the places he and his wife have lived, he cannot assume elements that Americans take for granted, such as a well-functioning judicial system that can enforce contracts, good communications, roads, or 'a generally accepted belief that a person has to pay for certain things like water and electricity.' Several years ago, McAloon returned to Georgia on a project for the national electric distribution system, implementing a metering program for the substations, to determine when major thefts of power were occurring.

'I feel blessed that I have had the opportunity to live and work in different parts of the world,' he says. 'Most important, I’ve received far more wisdom and learning than I’ve been able to give.'

Ross Tsantoulis ’07

Somewhere within the forts of his childhood backyard and the Lego city that sprang up in his bedroom, Ross Tsantoulis discovered a route to his future. Now, almost two years since he received his BS in civil engineering from WPI, he is building structures that not only satisfy his imagination, but also promise to improve conditions in a country wracked by war. Based in Kabul, Afghanistan, since March 2008, Tsantoulis works for Tetra Tech as a project engineer creating infrastructure to stabilize rural development in a USAIDsponsored program. On any given day, he could be tackling half a dozen assignments—from roads and bridges to dormitories and solutions for water storage. He does architectural design, drafting, management, whatever is required to bring these efforts to fruition.

Numerous hardships confront Tsantoulis and his colleagues, but he minimizes these and celebrates the strengths of the people he meets. "I am fortunate to work with brilliant Afghan engineers, who continue to teach me to appreciate the differences between construction practices in the United States and those of Afghanistan," he says. "Here, we are limited by the small number of resources available, such as clean water and electricity. It’s common that a five-story building is built with no consideration of seismic loads, and is constructed with small batches of concrete mixed by hand on the ground."

Because of the remote locations of projects, poor roads, and threats of insurgency, Tsantoulis usually remains in Kabul, interacting with the Afghan engineers who travel to the sites. When he was employed by Tetra Tech’s Manchester, N.H., office—not far from his family’s home in Hooksett— Tsantoulis was able to go onsite to assess conditions and "get my hands dirty and not just sit back and look at the design from my computer screen." In his current situation, he finds himself especially grateful for the knowledge of stone masonry cement and concrete he gained in his materials class with civil and environmental engineering professor Tahar El-Korchi. CEE associate professor Leonard Albano’s design of steel structures class was a great challenge at the time, but has served Tsantoulis well.

These days, much of his learning takes place during encounters with Afghan individuals. Rashad, 15, flies kites in the afternoons at a popular hill in town, but then works well past midnight on studies that he believes can take him to a university in America. He would like to return as an engineer to help rebuild his country. There’s also Omar, an engineer who has lived through the Russians, the Mujahideen, and the Taliban, is deaf in one ear, and yet radiates joy. "It is people like Omar, the humble, selfless, hardworking, devoted people that bring hope to stabilizing Afghanistan."  For his part, Tsantoulis is studying the Dari language, so that he can establish deeper relationships with local shopkeepers and others he is getting to know. Already, he has realized that there is more to building than bricks and mortar.

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Last modified: April 01, 2009 16:12:50