Meet the sanitarians

Three women share the load of six-county district
By: 
CHARLIE DENISON
Senior Reporter
Friday, January 31, 2020
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From left, sanitarians Amy Sanders, Megan Spry and public engineer Barb Kingery stand outside the Central Montana Health District office Wednesday afternoon. The three have enjoyed working the six-county district together.

Photo by Charlie Denison

Being a sanitarian for the Central Montana Health District is quite an undertaking, as three women can attest. Barb Kingery, Amy Sanders and Megan Spry are taking the brunt of the work, going from inspection to inspection and septic to septic, covering 12,328 square miles. 

Kingery, a public engineer out of Helena, has been at it since Susan Baldwin left in November of 2018. 

“The Health District needed someone to help them on the land development side,” she said, “particularly with septic systems, Department of Environmental Quality issues and more. It’s my job to protect public health and safety, as well as the environment.”

Sanders – a registered sanitarian – was hired to inspect licensed establishments.

“I was called out of retirement,” she said, “which was OK with me.”

In June, Megan Spry joined the team, learning the ropes from Kingery and Sanders and passing her tests to become an official registered sanitarian.

 “She wrote her very first permit on Tuesday,” added Kingery.

When it comes to being a sanitarian, there is a lot to learn, Spry said, which at times can be overwhelming.

“The land side takes a lot of on-the-ground experience and a lot of regulatory experience,” said Kingery. “I’ve been working with Megan on getting her feet on the ground. We are working through the rules and the models that go with septic systems to help people.”

 

Simple twist of fate

Spry was hoping to find this kind of job, and, fortunately, it fell into her lap.

“My husband and I moved to Judith Gap almost three years ago, which is where my husband is from,” Spry said. “My in-laws were logging Amy’s property and that’s when the conversation got started.” 

“We were sitting at the kitchen table and they asked what kind of work I did and Megan’s father-in-law, Tony Miller, said, ‘Megan would really like that,’” Sanders said.

“I have degrees in environmental science and biology, so I like all things science, and this job requires science, plus I like jobs that get my hands dirty,” Spry added. “I was pretty darn happy when I heard about this. I was on it instantly.”

Now full-time sanitarian, Spry oversees all health inspections for all six counties in the district.

“This involves restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, trailer courts, food manufacturing, schools, plus I do soil profiling for septic systems and approve septic designs with engineers,” she said. 

It’s a busy job, Spry said, and a lot for one person to handle, but she likes it that way. 

“I’ve had a lot of 10-hour days,” she said, “and sometimes I don’t get lunch until 2:30 or 3. It’s go-go-go. I’m not sitting at my desk very frequently.”

Considering the craziness, Spry said she appreciates having Kingery and Sanders still on board to share the load. Sometimes they even work together, especially Spry and Sanders.

 Going from inspection to inspection has been a fun challenge for Sanders, one she’s greatly enjoyed.

“You never know what’s going to happen when you go from one place to another,” she said. “You get out, you meet people and they are mostly very nice. They are welcoming and try to do the right thing as far as public health is concerned. Usually when they aren’t doing the right thing, it’s because they don’t know what they are supposed to do.”

This is where sanitarians come in, Sanders said, as it is their job to educate the public.

“We teach people what they need to do,” she said. “That’s our main objective: to show them how to do it right. We’re going to do everything we can to help them protect the public.”

“It’s not personal,” added Kingery. “When you explain why you are there and what you need from them they’re usually happy to do it, and it’s so rewarding for us to help them.”

 Sanders said sanitarians are not to be feared. When they drop in unexpected they want the same thing the business owners do.

 “We all want to protect the public,” she said.

Spry agrees.

“We are not here to shut you down,” she said. “We are here to help you. We want you to comply.”

On this note, Sanders said sanitarians are more problem solvers than they are enforcers.

“We are kind of like Sherlock Holmes,” she said. “We’re just trying to figure out what’s going on.”

“Minus the magnifying glass and trench coat,” Spry added.

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