Dave Strobhar was still a student at Wright State University when the worst nuclear power accident in American history shut down the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania.
He had no idea that he would soon be working there.
Strobhar, a Centerville native and 1976 Alter High School graduate, was studying human factors engineering at Wright State when a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant partially melted down in March 1979.
“I was doing some work for a local human factors company and they were doing work at Three Mile Island,” Strobhar recalled. “That was the beginning, really, of a lot of human factors research outside the Department of Defense.”
It was also the beginning of Strobhar’s career in human factors engineering, one that led to founding the Centerville company he still runs, Beville Engineering.
The Air Force pioneered human factors research at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to enable pilots and other personnel to manage ever more complex machines and systems. Wright State has supported that work with a strong human factors engineering program. The university’s Department of Biomedical, Industrial, and Human Factors Engineering (BIE) is the only academic unit nationally to share programs in these disciplines.
When he graduated in 1980, Strobhar began working at GPU Nuclear, owner of the Three Mile Island plant, analyzing the accident.
In studying the human factors issues in the Three Mile Island accident, Strobhar recognized a need for human factors engineering in other industrial plants with complex process controls, especially oil refineries and chemical plants.
“You have these very complex, hazardous plants, and there are people at the controls just like there are people at the controls of an aircraft. If they make a mistake, the crash is more figurative than literal, but it can have some very devastating consequences,” Strobhar said.
At the same time, Three Mile Island brought nuclear power plant construction to a stop in the United States. Noting the similarity of human factors issues between nuclear plants and oil and chemical plants, Strobhar decided to focus his engineering efforts on that area.
He returned to Centerville for a short stint with a small engineering firm, and then decided to start his own company.
“I gave myself six months to find out if there was a demand for my services, and after six months it seemed that there was. Within a couple of months after that I got my first project, and some 28 years later I’m still doing it,” he said.
Beville Engineering is a small firm with just five employees, but Strobhar said most of its clients are large companies. “Most of our clients are Fortune 50 companies. They are the BPs, the Shells, Conoco Phillips, Exxon Mobil. All the majors,” he said.
The company’s work focuses on operator interfaces, such as alarms and displays, and operator workload and staffing. “Companies are trying to walk this line of being as competitive as they can and as efficient as they can, but ensure they have enough people that they can operate safely and in an environmentally friendly way to the communities that they’re in,” he said.
With clients in all parts of the country, Strobhar said the Dayton area is as good a location as any for his company. “We’ve got major projects right now in Edmonton, Alberta; Billings, Montana; and Bismarck, North Dakota,” he said. “So the only requirement is access to an airport that can get you to these places.”
But staying near Wright State has enabled Strobhar to leverage its academic resources to help the oil and chemical industry.
Strobhar said companies recognized a common need for information on which to base new safety standards. “Decisions were being made in a vacuum,” he said.
As a member of the external advisory board for Wright State’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, Strobhar approached S. Narayanan, Ph.D., dean of the college. They put together a plan that led to the opening of the Center for Operator Performance in 2007 as an alliance of academic and process companies to research issues facing the petrochemical industry in the area of human factors and operator performance.
Strobhar said several oil companies and large computer suppliers fund the center’s operations and research projects. Wright State has done some of the research, but projects have also been done by Louisiana, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania state universities, and private companies have done some as well.
“Wright State has a strong human factors presence, and so that helps in terms of gaining access to resources,” Strobhar said. “Wright State either has people who can do the work, or they know who can do the work.”
The Center for Operator Performance “is really doing some groundbreaking work,” Strobhar said. “It is getting some high visibility within the industry. It is developing some very significant safety-related finding, so it has the potential to dramatically improve the safety of these plants.”
Strobhar credited Wright State for recognizing the importance of the center and stepping up to the challenge of creating it with industry support.
“It required not just the operating companies wanting to do this, but we had to have an institution that was ready and able to support it. Wright State stepped forward and said, ‘We’d love to host this.’ Had we been located anywhere else, I don’t know whether the center would’ve ever been formed.”