Con Edison linemen reconnect cables after a winter storm. The utility serving New York City and Westchester County, New York, has 34,000 miles of overhead cables. Photo courtesy of Con Edison.

First Responders of the Utility World

Oct. 24, 2013
When nature strikes with fury, utility crews move to the front lines with compassion and commitment to restore power to customers.

Being a lineman can be tough on the body and the home life, as any lineman would say. However, when it comes to storm situations, things get really tough. Sixteen-hour days, seven days per week — getting the lights back on after a major weather event means no time for family birthdays, graduations, weddings or even tucking the kids into bed at night. It means going home for just a few hours to sleep (if lucky enough to be working in the area), or it means sleeping on cots in a gymnasium or bunking at a local motel (if assisting another utility).

Storm work is tiring, difficult and dangerous, with downed lines that may or may not be energized, limbs hanging precariously from trees and lines, and slick roads and wet shoulders that could cause trucks to tip. And, unforeseen problems may pop up such as swarms of storm-damage sightseers and long lines for gasoline.

Still, the service these crews restore has become so essential that many linemen consider themselves to be first responders of sorts. To hospitals, nursing homes, schools and even people in their own homes, that esteem reserved for first responders is often showered on linemen after a storm.

Three weather events during the past year in the United States are good examples of how vital linemen are today: Superstorm Sandy, the May tornadoes in Oklahoma and an April ice storm in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Getting There Before the Storm

Linemen are used to getting last-minute calls for help to restore service after a weather event. They usually show up after the storm. But Superstorm Sandy, which hit the Northeast in October 2012, was different. The call for assistance went out early enough that many of the assisting utilities and contracting companies arrived on the East Coast before the storm did.

Utility trucks stand ready at the Eisenhower Park staging area in Nassau County, New York, in preparation for Hurricane Sandy. Photo courtesy of Long Island Power Authority.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever done it that way,” said Chris McManaway, a lineman and foreman with six years of experience at Henkels & McCoy. He traveled from Indiana and spent a month helping New Jersey Gas & Electric restore service.

McManaway’s crew of four stayed at a motel to wait out the storm, monitoring the weather throughout the day, grateful that power stayed on at the motel.

Quanta Services crews also waited out the hurricane in hotels. Greg Austin, operations superintendent over storm restoration and overhead distribution at Quanta Services, drove 1,800 miles (2,897 km) from Houston, Texas, to Long Island, New York, before the storm hit. Austin’s crew worked the storm for 29 days straight in the National Grid/Long Island Power Authority territory on Long Island.

For journeyman lineman George Knudsen and general foreman Mike Forrest, Superstorm Sandy hit close to home, as both live on Long Island. Even though their homes were spared major damage, the Asplundh employees were two of many who spent a month and a half helping the local utilities restore power on Long Island just a few weeks after returning from Florida and Louisiana, where they helped repair damage from Hurricane Isaac.

As in many weather events, work was slow in the first few days because of the extent of the damage. Crews had to watch for hanging limbs that could fall and fallen tree wire conductor, often used in the Northeast, that might still be energized, Austin recalled.

For the first two days, the Asplundh crews teamed up with local municipalities to clear debris and wires from roadways so they would be passable for emergency and utility crews.

“Guys couldn’t even get to work because there were so many trees in roadways and wires down everywhere,” Forrest said.

Getting to and from work eventually became a problem for many of the workers for another reason: gasoline shortages. Andrew Zabroni, an overhead troubleshooter for Con Edison, ended up sleeping at the utility’s building in Westchester, New York, for three nights because the gas lines became too long for him to commute the 20 miles (32 km) home to Brooklyn, New York, he said. The utility soon allowed its workers to use the fuel pumps in their yards, but, after a while, even those lines became long, sometimes requiring an hour-long wait.

Zabroni worked 16-hour days for 26 days straight, often by himself. In the first few days after the storm, he often had to park his truck and walk two blocks to assess work that was required.

“Pretty much, you pulled up on a job and your hands were tied,” Zabroni said. “There was so much damage that you didn’t know where to start. It was complete destruction.”

The truck laptops often were not working and cell phone use was limited because of damaged cell towers, according to Zabroni. Sometimes Zabroni had to wait an hour to call the control to tell them to turn off the power to certain areas.

“It was like going back to the Stone Age, starting from scratch,” Zabroni said. “There was no easy fix.”

He took great satisfaction in putting doubts to rest he could restore a neighborhood’s power on his own.

“I had them back in lights before I left; they were shocked,” Zabroni said.

Making Personal Connections

An ice storm may seem like a less dangerous weather event than a tornado or hurricane, but dangers abound with ice, too. Thirty-two-year veteran Rich Hohn can
attest to that.

The working line crew foreman with Xcel Energy normally works on his own, but, after an April 9, 2013, ice and snow storm that left about 75,000 customers in the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, area without power, each crew consisted of two or three people because the work was too difficult and dangerous initially to work solo.

Rich Hohn, a troubleshooter for Xcel Energy in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had a close call with a hanging limb during the April 9 ice and snow storm, which left about 75,000 Xcel Energy customers in the area without power. Photo courtesy of Xcel Energy.

On one job, Hohn was taking care of some transformers and a line that was down on the end of the feeder. People were shoveling snow near a pickup truck that had 3 inches (76 mm) of snow and ice on top of it — as well as the jacket of a feeder cable. Hohn told the people to get out of the way because it was likely hot. One of the men leaned his shovel against the pickup before Hohn could stop him, but, when Hohn told him to get away from the pickup, the man reached for the shovel to take it with him. Hohn again had to yell to the man to leave the shovel, stopping him in time. It was clear these people did not understand how electricity worked, he said.

Hohn faced a close call himself, too. Going into backyards was dangerous, because many of the backyards in the old part of the city were covered with trees that had limbs hanging precariously. Hohn had been standing on a ladder working with a large limb hanging above him. He went to his truck to get something, thinking perhaps he should wait until the limb was taken care of to finish the job. When he returned to his ladder, he discovered the branch had fallen on top of it.

“There were things you let go because of safety issues,” he said.

Hanging limbs also were a hazard on the interstates. Hohn and a few other linemen had to stop traffic on one roadway where trucks going 75 mph (121 kmph) were missing an ice-laden limb by less than a foot. They used aluminum bats to beat the ice off the limb so it would no longer sag.

The 16-hour days lasted for about three weeks, but Xcel’s linemen were still working long hours in early June to not only get their regular work done but also to finish some storm-related work, Hohn said.

Despite the long days, Hohn still had time to take special steps to help at least one customer. He needed to take the power out for a man whose mast was off his house, but the man was depressed with no family and no money. He did not want his power taken off, and he did not want to deal with the mast situation, which was the homeowner’s responsibility. Hohn called his supervisor to see how the utility could help the man, referring him to the United Way for assistance and agreeing not to turn off his power.

“I don’t know what he would have done if I unhooked him,” Hohn said. “He was pretty down in the dumps, so I just left him on. I felt sorry for the guy.”

Paying It Forward Pays Off

Parts of Oklahoma Gas & Electric’s (OG&E’s) territory were tough places to be this spring. From May 18 to June 5, the area faced three tornadoes as well as high winds on several other days. The most well-publicized tornado was the Moore, Oklahoma, EF-5 tornado on May 20 that killed 24 people.

Every day for more than a week after the first tornado on May 19, OG&E’s linemen had to deal with incoming storms, high winds and tornado threats that required planning ahead for possible tornado shelter, said Chris Bristol, distribution line foreman with OG&E in Oklahoma City.

“That is something that I’ve never had to deal with, finding a place to go when storms were coming in,” Bristol said. The linemen worked through the rain, but anytime lightning occurred or tornado sirens went off, the linemen were required to come down off the poles.

That issue hit home for Bristol because, as he was working the May 19 tornado in Norman, he heard a tornado was headed to Moore, where he lives and where his wife and two daughters were. He rushed home and found his family safe but devastation in much of the town.

The first night of the Moore tornado, the top priority was opening roadways for emergency vehicles, said John Bassett, supervisor over OG&E’s trouble shooter department.

“Under normal circumstances, there is stuff of ours that we make great efforts never to cut because it either creates a lot of work for the guys showing up or it creates further problems, but with this much devastation, everything was pretty much on the ground anyways, so we were cutting and getting out of the roadways anything that was our stuff and anything that needed to get out of the way because we just needed people to be able to get in there.”

The effect on the people of Moore was hard to watch while trying to work, said Jimmy Walters, foreman of an OG&E transmission crew. “Sometimes, it is hard when you are dealing with this kind of stuff to keep your head in your work, because a lot of the stuff you see is pretty emotionally tearing on you,” he said. “You feel so bad for those people, but you have a task and job at hand.”

The main problem in many of the older neighborhoods in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where the Xcel system is still mostly overhead, was that ice-laden limbs fell onto the lines, pulling them away from houses and off poles. Photo courtesy of Xcel Energy.

OG&E has an incident command system it activates in situations such as this. In the first phase, the utility does reconnaissance, collecting feedback from crews in the field on the kind of damage and location of that damage, said Mike Matthews, vice president of power delivery operations at OG&E. Then, the utility decides whether it needs help from outside utilities and contractors and, if so, makes those phone calls.

After the May 20 EF-5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, OG

“We immediately called for help,” Matthews said. “Everyone responded as soon as they could. We more than doubled our resources overnight.”

It may come as no surprise OG&E received such a strong response. In January 2013, the utility had received the Energy Assistance Award from the Edison Electric Institute for the fifth time for sending crews to assist with restoration at other utilities. OG&E had helped with the Super Derecho, Hurricane Isaac and Superstorm Sandy events in 2012.

Beyond the lessons that paying it forward does pay off, OG&E also learned from these weather events how important initial reconnaissance and technology are. Both helped the utility to assess the situation with its smart meter system, allowing OG&E to ping meters to see who was out of power and to help with assessments.

“It helped us identify the outliers outside the major storm path that were out of power,” Matthews said. “We could ping the meters and determine if they were still off and get people over there. We learned a lot about how to integrate that technology into our initial damage assessments. We will be using that more fully in the future.”

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!