Weather forecasters across New England called for freezing rain and the potential for 1 inch of ice buildup on trees and power lines on Dec. 11. Utility companies, mindful of the devastating ice storm of 1998, made calls to sister utilities for additional line crews and then turned to private line companies for support. Overnight and on the morning of Dec. 12, ice-covered branches and trees crashed onto power lines throughout New England, causing 1.25 million homeowners and businesses to lose power. The Weather Channel declared it the worst ice storm in a decade for New England.
On Target Utility Services (Gardiner, Maine) sent line crews and digger crews to assist four utilities — Eastern Maine Cooperative, Bangor Hydro Electric, Central Maine Power (CMP) and Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) — during the two-week restoration effort. The crews worked a schedule of 17 hours on and 7 hours off until the emergency ended. The hosting utilities were responsible for the logistics of housing, feeding and supplying the crews in the field. The crews focused on removing branches from power lines, replacing wires and utility poles that were knocked down by the ice storm, and restoring power to thousands of customers.
Although the crews faced tough work conditions, they received immediate gratification as they turned on power to customers who were enduring hardships. For many of the linemen, the restoration work was a welcome change of pace and an experience they will not soon forget.
Preparing the Fleet
On the night of Thursday, Dec. 11, the freezing rain turned Maine's roads into ice skating rinks. Like many businesses, On Target's office didn't escape the destruction of the ice storm. The road directly across from the company's construction yard was in shambles, and by 2:30 a.m., the building lost power, making it nearly impossible to open the electric doors. To make matters worse, the phone network also went down.
Fortunately, the office staff was able to rely on backup power and cell phones to communicate with the field crews. Before the storm hit, On Target designated a manager to stay in the office overnight to coordinate the response effort and handle office operations.
At 3 a.m., the manager on duty chipped a half inch of ice off the line crews' bucket trucks. A mechanic then filled the vehicles with fluids, and had them warmed and ready to go when linemen arrived at 5:30 a.m. Friday morning.
Springing Into Action
The digger crews were dispatched to the service centers where they operated independently of the line crews. The digger crews took direction from the utility line supervisors. The line crews traveled to the utilities and were assigned a “bird dog,” or guide, to get them efficiently around the service system. The line crews also stocked up on storm wire, splices and fuses, and were issued circuit maps for their areas of responsibility.
CMP established “storm packs” to go on each truck that came into a service center. These packs contained an assortment of fuses, typical splices and a small amount of other stock.
The kits were loaded onto trucks in minutes so the crews could be on their way. Next, they assessed additional supplies that were needed on the job, and a bird dog went back to the service center to gather them. This reduced response time, but also cut down on the confusion of having many crews gathering up their supplies simultaneously.
When On Target first dispatched its crews, CMP reported 8000 customers were without power. This number ballooned to 220,000 as customers woke up to find they had electricity. Later that day, PSNH reported 322,000 customers without power. On Target sent crews to three utilities on that first day of the storm. As the work at each company was cleaned up, the crews moved on to other utilities still in need.
The lines crews cleared conductors of limbs and trees using hydraulic- and gasoline-powered chain saws and stick saws. Particularly heavy trim and large trees were handed off to line clearance crews, while line crews concentrated on splicing and re-sagging wire. Once the tree crews finished their work, the line crews moved in to put the conductor up.
In the early stages of the storm restoration, the utilities gave the line crews the responsibility of restoring entire circuits. Crews began at the substation and moved outward, testing the line for voltage, grounding the line where necessary and isolating all of the single-phase lines. Typical problems included poles and conductors broken by falling limbs and trees. As the backbone three-phase lines were re-established, work began on the single-phase lines that extended for miles into the country.
The host utilities carefully scheduled the distribution and location of the line, digger and tree crews to prevent the overlap of crews on the same circuit. Otherwise, it could create confusion and cause unnecessary hazards as linemen re-energized circuits and lines. Safety was also a major concern during the storm-restoration effort. To protect themselves from danger, the linemen conducted the proper testing, and tagged and grounded all the equipment while it was in operation.
As the restoration effort moved into the later stages, more crews became available, allowing utilities to begin the work of repairing and replacing individual services to the homes and to bring isolated individual customers back on line. On Target crews at PSNH were paired with service crews tasked with repairing and replacing damaged meter entrance equipment. On Target replaced the services on houses, and the service crews repaired the entrances and tapped the service.
Although the line workers faced difficult conditions, they received immediate gratification as they restored power to customers. Most customers remained upbeat and cheerful through the ordeal, a testament to the resiliency and resourcefulness of New Englanders.
Line crews worked shifts of 17 hours on and 7 hours off. The utilities tried to maximize efficiency by scheduling crews to work all daylight hours. The crews had breakfast at 5 a.m., took a bag lunch and typically had dinner at about 9 p.m., after which they went to bed.
On Target was able to communicate with the home office through cell-phone communications and via e-mail, because each line supervisor was equipped with a laptop computer and an Internet-enabled air card. Communications between the host utility and On Target were handled by the bird dog over a company radio or cell phone. It was imperative that all outages cleared were reported promptly to allow the utility to gauge its progress and assign resources efficiently.
All line trucks were equipped with spotlights and work lights to allow the crews to operate efficiently after dark, which was a key requirement for operation on short winter days.
While the lights allowed them to work at night, line crews worked through heavy snow and frigid temperatures, which slowed progress. Line crews, like the customers they serve, are creatures of their environment and bring what they need to continue working, no matter what Mother Nature throws at them.
The aerial bucket truck — the staple of line crews — again demonstrated its value in this situation. The equipment safely moved linemen into positions that would be difficult and more time consuming then if they were required to climb. The buckets also lessen the fatigue and extend the effective work time of a line worker.
However, there are still those situations — due to the remoteness of the work and the location of the lines — that require linemen to don their climbing gear, or "hooks" and climb the poles necessary to restore power. This becomes especially important in restoration efforts where the work must be accomplished and cannot be deferred to a later date.
On Target's locating division played a key role in the pole-setting efforts. The line locators were responsible for performing more than 670 emergency dig safe tickets for the restoration efforts. Before new utility poles could be placed, the dig site needed to be marked in case of underground utilities nearby. Peter Decoteau, On Target's Locating Massachusetts regional manager, said that oftentimes the roads were closed, and the locate technicians had to wait for the police to let them access the road.
"In the Lunenburg and Bolton/Holden areas, it just looked like another world with all the destruction," said Decoteau. "Not only did you have to watch for downed power lines, but the trees that were left standing had so much weight on them from the ice, they would just snap and fall right next to you. The utilities were saying that they would get one street done, and further up the street, another tree would come down and they would be back to square one."
On Target's call center, located in Gardiner, was staffed 24 hours a day during the restoration efforts to assure proper and timely dispatching of the emergency tickets.
Ten years ago, Maine was hit with one of the state's worst ice storms, and the memory is still fresh in the minds of many Northeast linemen. In fact, the owner of On Target was in charge of operations for CMP when the 1998 storm hit. The 2008 storm is second in line to that storm due to the number of power outages.
The 1998 storm was different in that the freezing rain was followed by bitter cold. The freeze downed wires into the ice and ground, forcing line crews to chisel the wire out of the ice or run new conductor. In contrast, the ice from the 2008 storm melted the day after the storm, allowing restoration efforts to proceed more smoothly.
Many utilities learned valuable lessons from the 1998 storm, established storm supplies and arranged vendor agreements to provide materials quickly when disaster strikes. Through advanced preparation and extensive organization, the line crews were able to help restore power to thousands of homeowners. By working together as a team, On Target linemen were able to overcome adversity and help utilities in their time of need.
BY THE NUMBERS
- On Target performed more than 670 emergency dig safe requests in an effort to support all of the pole set crews in six New England states.
- On Target supported four different systems in the wake of the storm — Central Maine Power (CMP), Bangor Hydro Electric (BHE), Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) and Eastern Maine Cooperative. Because Eastern Maine had very low outages, the utility released the On Target crews one day into it.
- At the peak of the storm, CMP had 220,000 customers out of power, Public Services of New Hampshire had 322,000 out of power and BHE had 12,000 without power.
- On Target replaced more than 100 poles for CMP, and as of late December, pole set diggers were still out in the field.
- National Grid in New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire had more than 500,000 people out of power at one point.
KEYS TO COMMUNICATION
When an emergency strikes, it is imperative that linemen communicate with the main office. To help linemen stay in touch with dispatchers and supervisors, On Target equipped each line supervisor with a laptop and Internet-enabled air card.
The line crews' trucks have the latest GPS technology, so supervisors can access work-site maps and directions. Because On Target's line crews travel over a large service territory, the GPS technology helps them to quickly and efficiently reach their intended destination.
"This helps to ensure an extra layer of security and information," said Mark Piesik, director of business development for On Target.
While On Target's linemen were out in full force to help with the restoration effort, the company's line locating division was also on call. The company has 160 line locators, who are on call 24 hours a day regardless of whether or not there is a storm. The line locators complete tickets for the state's Dig Safe program. When a storm hits, they often can't complete their other locating assignments, so they focus their full attention on helping with the emergency storm restoration effort.
Normally, only one person is on call for a three town area, but during the ice storm, one locator was on call, three people served as backup, and three supervisors were available to handle the volume of tickets for that same area.
On a normal weekend, the line locating division handles about three or four calls for a three town area, but from Saturday to Monday, the locating crews responded to 212 emergency requests in the hardest hit area in western Massachusetts.
"The guys did a bang up job for the last week, and with the storms coming up, they will be right back at it," said Peter Decoteau, Massachusetts regional manager, referring to the snow expected to hit soon after the ice storm.
Tim Labreck ([email protected]) is the business supervisor for the construction division of On Target Utility Services, Gardiner, Maine. He has been with the company for 10 years.
Ed Godin ([email protected]) is superintendent, transmissions for On Target. He has been with the company for 10 years and been in the utility industry since 1971.