Hurricane Gustav ripped through Texas two years ago, inflicting significant damage to trees and power lines. After the devastation, a Southeastern utility called upon Ready Force to survey the damage, assess solutions and direct tree-cutting crews to clear debris.
Ready Force, a division of ACRT (Akron, Ohio), helps utilities during times of crisis from downed power lines caused by forest fires and ice storms to daily emergencies such as filling staff shortages.
When a forest fire, ice storm or hurricane devastates a utility's transmission and distribution system, companies often need assistance during their time of crisis. Utilities are turning to Ready Force to help provide both short-term and long-term assistance to alleviate vegetation management concerns. The team, which was first started in California to help a large utility, is now aiding utility companies nationwide.
When a severe storm hits a utility's service territory, companies can bring in a member of the ACRT Storm Team. This group of responders can fly anywhere and anytime, and then hit the ground running when they arrive, said Pat Paternostro, ACRT operations manager and leader of the Ready Force team.
Many of the members of the Storm Team are on call to utility companies who need to assess and clear hot spots so that linemen can safely enter and restore electricity. For example, a Virginia-based utility hired an ACRT team member on a long-term assignment. In the past 18 months, the utility has called upon this arborist to assist with various types of tree-related outages.
Partnering With Line Crews
When on assignment, the Ready Force team members work 16-hour days, seven days a week, until the crisis is over. The team members are in constant contact with the utility, assessing miles of power lines, managing cutting crews and relaying information about where next to send the line crews.
The Ready Force team works alongside the linemen to alert them of areas needed to be cleared. But because of potential safety hazards of having too many field crew members in close proximity of the damage, both units typically work separately. They then come together at meetings to discuss the status of the situation and to determine the progress being made. The line crews and Ready Force team then decide if they need a higher concentration of assistance or if they're able to start sending crews out.
When working on a storm restoration effort, the team members need to be constantly alert about what dangers surround them. With such hazards as downed power lines, the safety of the team, the linemen and the local citizens is the first priority. The team's job is to assess each situation and find the best way to quickly and safely resolve any issues.
This careful attention to safety is crucial, especially when it comes to weather-related power outages, which often can be severe. In 2005, immediately after Hurricane Katrina, ACRT deployed Ready Force agents within 24 hours. The team assessed damages and directed tree crews on a massive scale.
A utility called upon the West Coast Ready Force team to assist with the fires sweeping through parts of California during the summer of 2009. The company needed to clear vegetation along miles of power lines to prevent line fires and potential power outages. The crew of Ready Force members backfilled for the local staff.
Then when California experienced an unusual amount of snow in January 2010, the West Coast team turned their attention to storm response duties throughout the California foothills, Auburn, Placerville and Grass Valley along Highway 80 connecting suburbs to Sacramento. Hiking with snowshoes, the team searched for trees that were causing power failures. They then notified the utility so the company could restore power.
In February 2010, 1500 miles away from Sacramento, another Storm Team was receiving its marching orders to head to Dallas, Texas, and surrounding areas. The region, which was receiving rare winter weather, needed assistance to restore power after ice and wind storms devastated the area. According to regional operations manager for ACRT, Kenny Murphy, the Storm Team was assembled within 48 hours.
“In situations, such as this, where we need all hands on deck, Ready Force is a great asset because they are highly trained and experienced,” Murphy said. “This was the second-worst outage in the local utility's history, and it was great to have a team assembled that could be of immediate assistance at a moment's notice.”
The ice experienced in the Dallas-Fort Worth area was just the beginning for this team. Tornados also hit the region, causing more outages and more devastation. The weight of the ice, plus the wind and tornadoes, left a path of destruction. It took a few months for the area to recover from the situation, and the Ready Force team helped every step of the way.
While it seems like grueling work, the Ready Force team members and the linemen often find it rewarding to watch an entire community light up after outages. People have also stopped the crews alongside the road to say thank you, which makes the intensive work schedule worthwhile.
But ACRT's Ready Force doesn't only handle emergency large-scale power outages. As an “on call” first responder, Ready Force is also available to manage staff shortages or to provide supervision, training and customer door knocking on an as-needed basis. For example, the head forester for a large utility serving Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas suddenly became ill and required an extended medical leave. A Ready Force agent with management experience was deployed to replace him during his absence.
Another example was a Florida-based utility that needed to get its vegetation management program jump started. Its system needed inspected and assessed on a very tight timeline. Agents from the ACRT Ready Force deployed staff to get the project underway almost immediately.
Ready Force units are comprised of only vegetation management experts, most of whom are certified arborists or registered professional foresters. Because they often find themselves as first responders in hazardous situations, these Storm Teams are highly trained in specific safety procedures for downed lines employing a minimum approach philosophy until the area is safe to enter.
More and more, Ready Force is being called upon to take preventive measures. ACRT gives preferential treatment to contract customers and often counsels utilities about the cost of waiting for a crisis versus acting preventatively. The cost to a utility in terms of fines and customer satisfaction is much higher when disaster strikes.
So, whether filling in for staff shortages or answering a call to nature's wrath, the Ready Force team members are often on the frontlines. By serving on call to utility companies, these team members are on hand to support line crews and help them safety restore power.
Penny White ([email protected]) is a contract supervisor for Dominion Virginia Power in Richmond, Virginia. She has worked with ACRT Inc. for more than 11 years, spending the last six years as a Ready Force Arborist, and has worked in more than 15 states.