2018 Engineers Week: Bret Nickels, Commander, US Public Health Service, Project Manager, Denver Service Center Design and Construction Division

Bret Nickels and Russ Moore at Hurricane Matthew response at Cumberland Island National Seashore
Bret Nickels, Project Manager, Denver Service Center Design and Construction Division (on left) and Russ Moore at Hurricane Matthew response at Cumberland Island National Seashore, GA. -- Photo courtesy Bret Nickels

Tell me about the most challenging engineering project you have been involved with in the recent past

The most challenging engineering project I have been involved with recently is the stabilization of a slope at Vicksburg National Military Park. We are challenged with a significant monument at the top of the slope and an active railroad track at the toe of the slope. Designing a solution that is safe, does not enter the railroad right of way, and is sensitive to the cultural landscape in which we are working is quite challenging.

What checks and balances do you use to make sure your project meets Park Service's needs while staying within available funding and specified time frames?

Our Quality Assurance Branch is key to the success of any project we undertake here at the Denver Service Center. The expertise found in this group is exceptional and their reviews ensure our projects meet the needs of the parks while meeting code and construction practice standards. The review comments sometimes add time and scope to our projects but that is where the balance of scope, cost, and quality come into play. It sometimes takes a lot of communication to ensure everyone on the project team is on the same page with the decisions moving forward.

What are you doing to stay current with the latest technology?

We are fortunate to have a professional workforce to bounce ideas off of and collaborate with on a regular basis. There are great lunch and learn meetings to stay abreast of current topics as well as our monthly Project Manager/Project Specialist Meetings where we hear from each other about lessons learned and new processes.

What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day at DSC is never typical.Depending on how may projects I have in construction and what stage of design each of my other projects is in, I could be in construction progress meetings all day or discussing design alternatives with an A/E firm. One of the most interesting projects I have underway now is one in which I am working with Harper's Ferry Center to deliver a design for both a renovated historic structure as well as exhibits to be housed in the space. We are also working with a partner organization who will be housed in the renovated space. The key to success in these challenging projects that may have competing interests is ensuring everyone knows we are all in this together and are here to achieve success for the American Public. It is refreshing to remind ourselves of who we report to and who we work for.

What do you enjoy most about your job as an engineer?

I love being a part of the process of serving the public in perpetuity. The projects we work on here at the National Park Service are signature projects that will be around for a long time and for all people to enjoy. Even with the most mundane project, I gain a great sense of purpose and satisfaction knowing that someone many years from now will be spending the same amount of effort as I have to maintain the historic character or to address environmental sensitivities that make our parks the country's most special places!

Last updated: February 14, 2018