Voice of Experience: Are You Ready for the Big Storm?
Now that Superstorm Sandy is over, there are fewer news stories about the destruction left in her wake and more media coverage of other topics. That is the nature of the news, but the truth is that Sandy cleanup will take months to complete. Many homeowners now have to cope with the new normal; their lives have been forever changed by the storm. When looking back on Sandy from a utility perspective – when you are scrutinizing what went well, what didn’t and the lessons learned – please consider the following points.
Utility systems, neighborhoods and lives take years to build, and they can all be taken from us in minutes during the fury of a storm. This has happened time and again in places all around the world. I watched news media reports from the Northeast while Sandy was taking place and heard the negative coverage, the customers’ frustrations and the desperation from utilities that were not fully prepared. A superstorm of Sandy’s magnitude had never hit these densely populated parts of the U.S. in recent history. Sometimes, when storms don’t strike, utility companies are convinced they are OK since nothing has happened and company leaders haven’t had to deal with anything like Sandy. The fact is, they don’t understand how to deal with a catastrophe of Sandy’s size. Utility customers also are unprepared because they haven’t witnessed this type of storm. They don’t comprehend the literal size of the problem nor the post-storm dangers. I know of one civilian fatality caused when the person stepped on a downed energized conductor. Crews I support found many downed primary conductors lying in the street, still energized.
The Importance of Mutual Aid
I worked for a large utility in the South for many years and also grew up dealing with hurricanes, ice storms and tornadoes. Both the utility I worked for and nearby utilities were often affected by these weather systems, and the experiences helped me understand why mutual aid and assistance programs are so important. No individual or company can ever be completely prepared to handle a storm as large as Sandy. However, after 45 years of performing storm work, I know that certain things need to be addressed long before a storm arrives. There needs to be a plan in place to restore power as quickly as possible, and learning each year how to make the plan better is instrumental in the success of the restoration plan. I am in no way being critical of any company, but I think utilities and customers in the Northeast were not prepared for the devastation and destruction that occurred when Sandy hit.
Utility customers were even less prepared than the utility companies. People living in coastal and inland New York and New Jersey have seen many nor’easters, but not a hybrid hurricane that morphed into a winter storm. I’ve done hurricane work as far back as Hurricane Camille in 1969, and also assisted during Hurricane Katrina and numerous others, and I’ve seen coastal states in the South rebound and rebuild many times. The difference is that the number of customers and the amount of infrastructure in the South is far less than that found in the Northeast.
Most customers on the coast understand that it takes years to build a utility system. When the system is destroyed by a storm, it takes many utility employees working many weeks to rebuild and replace damaged parts. After Sandy, customers in the Northeast found that a storm of her size can take out more infrastructure than can be replaced without a storm evaluation and replacement plan customized for their local utility.
An example of an incomplete plan is what happened on Long Island, where they didn’t have enough poles on hand. Utilities there never had to deal with such a large, catastrophic event and were caught completely off guard. Although mutual aid teams gladly offered their assistance, they weren’t able to help in a timely manner because basic parts of the utility system – such as poles, transformers and conductors – weren’t available. Suppliers of this equipment need to be contacted well before a storm hits in order to provide materials in an emergency situation. An added frustration to situations like this is that customers don’t always understand why restoration efforts are taking so long.
Host companies face tremendous challenges when dealing with the logistics and administrative issues that come with securing the help of mutual aid teams. Long before a storm arrives, contracts need to be in place so the teams have lodging, food, fuel, laundry service and other necessities. Incoming aid teams travel long distances to assist in restoration efforts, but they don’t want to arrive too early and suffer losses in the storms, so they have to make decisions about when to mobilize crews. Utility companies located closer to the storm will be the last to respond to assistance requests. They will have local storm damage and restoration work to handle before they leave to help their neighbors.
Travel logistics are another challenge when large teams are on the move. Preparing equipment and employees to be on the road for weeks at a time is a critical issue. Mutual aid companies must also have a plan covering all employee concerns and needs that is implemented in advance of the storm. The visiting teams must bring all logistics with them, which adds to the size of the problem the host company has to deal with. Holding team meetings with host companies in advance will create higher levels of preparedness when traveling teams arrive on site.
A Potentially Frustrating Situation
One of the most difficult parts of a storm restoration plan is ensuring the host company is completely ready for assistance by mutual aid teams. There are an exceptional number of assets at the host company’s disposal, and it is frustrating and a waste of visiting teams’ time if the host company isn’t prepared to dispatch them to staging areas with needed supplies, provide them with maps of the area, and give them the proper necessities such as food, fuel and lodging. When crews arrive, they are ready to get the lights on, not sit in staging areas.
We mustn’t forget that the safety of all employees is No. 1 during work on these storms. Site-specific safety information must be known, including the type of system, the nominal system voltage, the PPE required based on available fault currents when working on anything energized and the size of the system safety grounds. Sometimes employees get caught up in the excitement of being there and forget the basic fundamentals of protecting employees working in a storm. Remember that operational excellence equals safety excellence. We work in a hazardous business, but your employees will be safe if they follow all of the rules all of the time.
About the Author: Danny L. Raines, CUSP, safety consultant, distribution and transmission, retired from Georgia Power after 40 years of service and opened Raines Utility Safety Solutions, LLC, providing compliance training, risk assessments and safety observation programs. He is also an affiliate instructor at Georgia Tech Research Center OSHA Outreach in Atlanta. For more information, visit www.electricutilitysafety.com.