The electric utility industry is experiencing more major catastrophic storms than ever. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and snow and ice storms are taking their toll on both systems and employees. It was just several months ago that we were dealing with back-to-back hurricanes – Florence and Michael – and now we’re well into a winter that has dealt large swaths of the country plenty of snow and record-breaking low temperatures.
At some point I stopped counting the number of storms I have worked during my 51 years in the industry. What I do know is that each storm has been a learning experience for me. One thing I’ve noticed over time – in addition to the increase in the number and severity of natural disasters – is that mutual assistance from other utilities and contractors has become a significant resource for host utilities that have suffered damage from these events. In light of that, I want to share some information that may help things go more smoothly for you and your crews during future restoration efforts.
Before the Restoration Begins
There are various challenges for the utilities and contractors that travel to provide aid. For example, travel to and from the assistance location can be as hazardous as the work performed upon arrival. Remember that while on the road, anyone driving a commercial motor vehicle to assist in a restoration effort must follow all Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. Also, always ensure a declaration has been made or CMV drivers who are under age 21 will need permission to do any interstate driving.
A few other things to think about prior to the start of work are location, geographical size and topography of the host’s system – all of which affect planning and the restoration timeline. It’s possible that special equipment may be needed to access rights-of-way. So, while many things are common to all storms, it’s crucial that the host employer makes visiting crews aware of any challenges prior to their arrival.
Speaking of the host employer, remember that anyone who travels to provide aid is considered an independent contractor by the host utility. It doesn’t matter what utility or contractor you’re talking about – each one is looked at the same way. That host utility is required by OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269(a)(3), “Information transfer,” to provide certain information about the characteristics of their system to visiting crews. Two of the most important characteristics are the available fault current so that system safety grounds can be sized properly, and the incident energy exposure to employees so that they can select the appropriate level of PPE in the event of an arc flash. Many companies that provide mutual assistance now meet with each other in advance of a storm restoration effort to provide critical information that includes all of the characteristics of the host system. This paperwork makes preconstruction meetings much more effective, provides a paper trail for the host, and helps to ensure compliance and safety of the visiting crews. In effect, meeting before restoration begins to exchange critical information generally reduces delays to the start of work and improves restoration times.
Advance work also is a necessity because even though utility companies often are dealing with the unknown, there are important questions that still must be answered. For instance, how bad was the storm? How many customers are without power? How many poles and transformers do I need to have staged? Those and many other questions can be answered by staging damage assessment teams and having them ready to roll out as soon as possible. Real-time information can be provided by technology if cellular systems are working. If they’re not, teams might be able to use drones and video – where they’re not prohibited by the Federal Aviation Administration or local jurisdictions – to help identify severely damaged areas. That information can quickly be delivered to the local storm center for planning purposes. The faster and more accurately information is received, the faster outage times will decrease and the more quickly the storm center will know the type and number of resources needed.
Supply Chain and Logistical Considerations
It’s one thing to know what supplies you need to get the lights back on, but it can be quite another to get those supplies to your site. The host utility must make prior arrangements with vendors to acquire adequate supplies of all necessary materials in a timely fashion. Good forecasting will help determine the severity of a storm and the amount of materials needed. One vital supply chain management task is determining how much infrastructure was damaged and how quickly vendors can supply new poles, transformers and conductors. A prearranged laydown area assembled near the damaged sites certainly reduces crews’ travel time to the work areas. No utility will have all the inventory needed in a large storm restoration event, however. For example, during a recent storm restoration effort, crews were out of poles, conductors and other materials. They were in damaged areas salvaging and reusing bolts and insulators to frame the poles.
An important logistical consideration is how to lodge and feed as many as 2,000 workers for up to a month. That’s no easy task. Fortunately, there are companies that will provide sleeping quarters and shower trailers at designated staging areas. Hotels are nice, and state parks and campgrounds with cabins can be found in many locations. Provisional agreements may be made with all of these organizations for use of their facilities in the event of a storm restoration effort.
The host company also should have on hand a list of potential resources, including contractors, that have offered to come to the host’s aid and whose employees have been vetted and ensured to be qualified workers. In fact, there are now a few companies across the U.S. that only work storm trouble. Other mutual assistance groups and organizations have been in place for years. The demands on their organizations to plan and provide the best service are now greater than ever.
Lastly, on an individual level, traveling crew members should always bring with them an ample supply of clothes as well as any personal medications they will need during their time away from home. The type of clothes workers may need can be an issue, so everyone should pay special attention. There’s nothing like going to work a hurricane and having a three-day rainy stretch about a week into the restoration period, and then not having enough clothes – or the right clothes – to stay safe and dry. Make sure you and your employees can show up wearing the proper attire for the work to be performed.
When I began writing this article, the country was in the middle of another major winter storm – and winter certainly isn’t over yet. So, if you haven’t already, my guess is there are still plenty of opportunities to plan for safe future restoration efforts.
About the Author: Danny 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 also is an affiliate instructor at Georgia Tech Research Center OSHA Outreach in Atlanta.