Bakersfield Gas Employee Practices Safety on Land and at Sea

By Libby O’Connell

Whether he’s with his gas crew in the desert near Topock or exploring the ocean floor off Catalina Island, Trevor Fulks has a perspective that looks far beneath the surface. A 50-year old job site becomes a lesson in legacy; a recreational scuba dive turns into a mission to save the sea. For someone who describes himself as “risk-averse,” Fulks displays an abundance of calm courage and confidence to forge PG&E’s newest foundations.

When Fulks was born, his parents were serving as medical missionaries in Nepal and relocated to the states when he was five to work in research science. Ultimately both landed teaching positions in Bakersfield, where he still lives. His love for the ocean and deep-sea diving came from his mother, who learned the sport for her marine biology classes and took him on his first dive in Mexico at 14.

As a young adult, he kept close to the sea by working on oil spill clean-ups, laying underwater fiber optic line to China and manning standing-ready boats up and down the coast guiding huge super tankers into San Francisco Bay.

He studied for a time at UC Davis, but with his then-fiancée working her way through law school, Fulks was motivated to find a solid career that would help him provide well for their future family. He parlayed his early operations experience into a gas utility worker position at PG&E; 10 years later he’s now the supervisor for Kern Division’s Gas Distribution General Construction.

The work cycle in General Construction isn’t always easy or predictable. If a crew is lucky, they may be working on a project that’s close enough to sleep at home, but that’s not always the case.

“We go wherever the priority work is,” Fulks says. “Sometimes it’s at home, but we’ve had times where we were out of town for six to seven months out of the year. That’s something unique to GC; there’s always the possibility the priority is away from where you live so that’s why teambuilding and relationships are so important.”

Fulks says he depends on his teams to commit to the job and to each other.

“A lot of work happens far away from our families and there are long hours. You have to maintain people’s buy-in continually; why the job is important needs to be constantly reinforced. You can’t be asking for things you wouldn’t do yourself,” he says. “It’s hard to take direction from somebody who’s not showing solidarity.”

Over the past decade, Fulks has seen a lot of job sites throughout the territory. He feels a both a link to the past in rebuilding the state’s infrastructure and pride in laying groundwork for the future.

“Any time our city expands, we are there before the houses and buildings go up,” he says. “So everywhere you go, you know you helped to build it — everything. You get to see the vastness of the system.

“When we travel through the desert, we get to trace the footsteps of those guys that put in the foundation. Sometimes we’ll even find artifacts in the middle of nowhere that show where the old crews from the 50s and 60s left off for the day — cans, lunch pails, old hard hats. We’re two or three hours from nearest paved road, so you just imagine these guys out there back then in the most difficult terrain — no ice water or air conditioning. It really makes you realize what they went through and how far we’ve come.”

Safety is a major theme for Fulks, both with his crews and in his recreational life underwater. With diving, he says, “It’s a foreign environment, so you have to keep healthy and safe. If you do it correctly and you’re on the ball and you plan, it’s rewarding. It’s not cool because it’s dangerous — it’s that it is interesting and fulfilling to make something that could be dangerous, safe.”

Fulks says he has the same thought process on the job.

“On a construction site there is great potential for bodily harm or worse, so you have to plan and identify hazards before you even start the job,” he says. “‘Incident-free’ and ‘safe’ are not the same things. You do the task in a risk-averse way and focused on success.”

Sharing experience comes into play just as much as knowing the procedures down pat.

“You pass down a lot through anecdotes,” says Fulks. “Procedures are written down but the safety rule doesn’t always connect with your teams until you tell them about the time that you knew why that rule was a rule. You have a duty to educate your team, to be diligent about breaking down the causes and build up your own personal knowledge base and pass that on. Then you can help provide context to make people listen. Tribal knowledge and storytelling are really important, because all of the rules evolved from real incidents.”

The focus on accountability is also evident in the work he does in his spare time — when he has it — to help clean up the refuse the fishing industry leaves in its wake. After a lifetime of diving, he was well aware of the problem and now serves on the board of advisors for Ocean Defenders Alliance, a group that works to protect ocean life from the effects of derelict fishing gear.

“Fishermen cut fishing nets that get caught and set them adrift; the net then fills up with sea mammals and fish and just sinks to the bottom,” he says. “And the nylon nets could last forever.”

Fulks and his fellow divers, including his younger brother Pete, retrieve the nets, lobster traps and other discarded equipment that endangers sea life and also capture underwater film footage to support media coverage of their cause.

He has also recently logged some time in front of the camera, appearing in one of PG&E’s local television advertisements in the Bakersfield area.

“I’m actually pretty quiet most of the time and sort-of shy,” he admits. “So it was a cool experience, but not something I was used to.”

With Bakersfield just a two-hour drive from the beach, Fulks tries to go whenever he can and hopes to share the beauty and wonder of the experience one day with his two young daughters, Morgan, 4, and Tahlia, 1.

“It’s more than just what you see,” he says. “Diving is very involved with all the senses: you’re weightless, you can’t speak. But it’s not silence — there are a lot of sounds underwater. It’s meditative.”

As they say, still waters run deep.

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