There is often an untold story about the invaluable role members of the vegetation management profession play as part of practically every major storm response. This year, 2017 may be remembered for many things, but, undoubtedly, one of them will be the unprecedented damage and disruption caused by the hurricane season.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma occurred more than two weeks apart, severely impacting the Houston, Texas, area along with Florida and parts of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. More than 60,000 workers from across the U.S. and Canada mobilized to support the power industry’s restoration efforts for these storms. Included in this number were workers from affected companies as well as mutual assistance crews, contractors and other support personnel. Many of the first teams on the scene following the hurricanes included vegetation management professionals, who cleared the way for restoration and rebuilding to begin. This is their story.
Professional vegetation management companies are widely known in the power sector for their expertise on integrated vegetation management (IVM), the practice of managing the vegetation in utility rights-of-way (ROW) by appropriately clearing new and expanded ROW to maintain required clearances, scheduled pruning, vegetation treatment for growth control and removal of danger species. IVM programs help to improve reliability and resiliency during normal times and minor weather events.
However, these same companies frequently have a second, related and critically essential line of business in storm response when the inevitable major storms occur. The business arrangement for storm response varies by VM company and utility, but nearly all utilities and contractors today jointly plan — normally long before the storm season begins — in prone areas to develop the terms of engagement for deployment.
Planning includes everything from a range of pricing for the various types of labor and support equipment that may be involved to mileage rates, per diems and even work practices. When the call is made from a utility to its partner VM company, the request to ramp up usually starts with a regional manager who contacts headquarters or, in the case of the Asplundh Tree Expert LLC, a coordinating storm center staffed 24 hours a day. Resource availability is compiled for the utility and then crews and equipment are compiled from a callout list as the storm unfolds. Headquarters then manages the dispatch of its resources.
Asplundh’s Executive Vice President Gregg Asplundh, the company’s corporate storm coordinator, explained aggregating and mobilizing personnel as well as equipment resources is a multistep process: “Crews are released from their local utilities and sent to pre-staging points requested by the receiving utilities. After the storm passes through, work is dispatched to the crews, sometimes in tandem with line crews and sometimes without.” He added, “We also coordinate resources through mutual assistance after crews are released, and once all work is completed, crews are released to their home utilities.”
Part of the team mobilization when a storm is imminent may be extensive travel to a designated staging location. However, Lewis Tree Service employees did not have to form a convoy and travel a long distance to respond to Hurricane Harvey, which came ashore in Rockport, Texas, on Aug. 25 as a Category 4 storm. The storm was right in the backyards of the company’s Houston-based personnel. The crews found extensive vegetation challenges in the hardest-hit areas, including fallen trees pulling down power lines, debris blocking roadways and major flooding.
CenterPoint Energy had to use all six of its local tree contractors at some point for the storm response, consisting of about 75 crews with supervision per day over an 11-day span. While CenterPoint did not need off-system mutual assistance tree crews, external mutual assistance airboat crews were used in some cases to ferry tree workers to locations with tree issues.
Staff from Lewis Tree’s Texas office worked through the Harvey restoration process and then valiantly deployed to help respond when Irma hit, despite the fact many of the employees’ own homes were impacted severely by the Texas storm.
Other VM companies deployed to Texas to assist utilities with restoration, including 400 personnel from Asplundh and more than 160 Wright Tree Service employees, who were under the direction of 11 general foremen. The Wright Tree crews came from six different home utilities and three states. The crews included two division managers, two division supervisors, and a safety supervisor to provide assistance and oversight for numerous restoration projects.
When Irma hit, just two weeks after Harvey, The Davey Tree Expert Co. was among the organizations that helped Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) assemble and preposition what FPL called the largest restoration workforce in U.S. history. More than 1000 employees from Davey Tree and its subsidiaries mobilized to support FPL, including hundreds who traveled from as far away as Maine and California in addition to those who traveled directly from Harvey recovery efforts in Texas. The Davey Tree personnel, including folks from the Davey Resource Group division (DRG), were staged in Lake City and Daytona Beach, Florida — presumably safe areas — about 48 hours before the storm subsided, according to Scott Anderson, a product developer and market manager for DRG.
As the magnitude of the storm’s impacts became evident, FPL and other utilities continued to call in additional support personnel who could help the utilities work essentially around the clock to assess damage, clear vegetation and restore service. Anderson confirmed the initial stages of the storm were fluid, with the call numbers growing almost hour to hour.
In fact, more than 4700 Asplundh Tree employees and its utility infrastructure subsidiaries from around the U.S. were deployed to Florida to help 15 utilities and municipalities restore power in the wake of Irma. Likewise, nearly 650 Wright Tree employees, under the direction of 43 general foremen, were deployed to three service areas, including FPL, Tampa Electric Co. and Duke Energy Corp. to respond to the hurricane. These crews came from 22 different home utilities and 12 states.
Setting the Stage
In preparation for major events like Harvey and Irma, VM companies routinely stage as many workers and equipment as close to the recovery area as feasible. Because of the scope of Irma and her last-minute change in trajectory from Florida’s east coast to west coast, mobilizing storm-response crews hit thousands of Florida residents on the road who were trying to return home as they drove from surrounding states and northern Florida to the hard-hit areas of southern Florida.
Sara Dreiser, a project manager for DRG, said crews traveling to Florida encountered the intense traffic after driving hundreds of miles from their home base and all that followed encounters with Irma in Tennessee and Georgia as a tropical depression and accompanying monsoon-like rain. This is not uncommon for professional VM companies. ACRT Inc. refers to its first-wave responders, who sometimes have to preposition in or near the path of a storm, as storm riders.
Because weather can be both unpredictable and unavoidable, utilities and tree companies plan as much in advance as possible, including mapping out potential trouble spots and marshaling points for resources. Whether prepositioned or mobilizing in real time as an expanding need is recognized, once on-site, the first meeting between VM contractors and other storm crews is an orientation focusing largely on safety. Crews are often new to one another and frequently working in locations other than their local service territory. Safety requirements and area practices, communication protocols and, finally, work priorities are addressed. The No. 1 focus is everyone goes home safely.
“Working in a hurricane-affected area is different than any other storm situation,” said Kevin Puls, director of eastern operations for ACRT. “Each employee of ACRT must meet a minimum qualification of experience and training to be considered for the company’s storm team. These team members as well as employees that are part of the utility’s embedded ACRT team go through a rigorous training course that is specialized in teaching the challenges that they can expect to encounter on a daily basis while on storm work.”
The company has what it refers to as a Ready Force, which it sends around the country in response to storms as well as other quick-response needs. Gregg Asplundh also emphasized storm training as he reported, “We do drills throughout the year with our utility partners and have established ‘rules for the road’ when employees leave their areas. Local small storms are always an opportunity to evaluate the performance of our crews on a small scale. Results from them are rolled into a greater process.”
Despite extensive preplanning by utilities and their contract partners, responding to a major event nearly always involves a triage exercise with one or more vegetation contractors assigned to construction companies and utility crews, so they can work in partnership to assess damage, clear access to lines and make repairs.
A practice used for Irma was the prepositioning of assessors to identify probable trouble areas and expected recovery steps. Davey Tree sent arborists and tree crews as well as assessors and mappers as part of damage-assessment teams. Assessors went in with initial responders to conduct what DRG’s Anderson referred to as quick sweeps. Then, as clearing of trees and debris advanced, personnel supplied by full-service tree companies and utility personnel prepared full damage assessments.
Of course, restoring power to critical infrastructure — such as emergency centers, fire stations, hospitals, water treatment, and other public safety and health facilities — is the first priority. Crews simultaneously plan for and repair major power transmission lines, damaged substations and other large-scale electrical equipment to restore power to the greatest number of customers as quickly as possible. The triage aspect often comes into play with prioritizing the small pockets of customers and areas hardest hit that may require rebuilding the system.
Kaleb Smith, lead planner for DRG, obtained the Miami, Florida, police chief’s phone number to call for a police escort as he moved his crews throughout the city. This enabled caravans of tree crews and linemen to follow the most efficient routes possible, safely traveling the wrong way down one-way streets and passing stoplights that were still out. Smith’s out-of-the-box thinking helped get crews to areas requiring clearing throughout the Miami-Dade metro area, thereby expediting the restoration process.
Davey Tree personnel also aided the response in the hardest-hit area of Naples/Ft. Myers, working with FPL foresters, tree crews and linemen to complete circuit inspections. Some team members assisted FPL directly, working with local foresters to manage and dispatch hundreds of crew resources for an entire site. Others spent much of their time patrolling lines to identify downed wires and trees while others worked in the field directly with a smaller group of crews, leading them to sites and directing work.
Strategic Mutual Assistance
Events like Harvey and Irma require significant coordination, and among the most important coordination mechanisms for storm response and recovery efforts are the mutual assistance arrangements in place among utilities. If connected by string, the visible representation of these arrangements would crisscross the country with companies in the Southeast being connected for mutual aid to organizations in the Northeast and West, and those in the Midwest paired with companies in the South and so on.
The partners in mutual assistance arrangements are frequently diverse geographically by design in order to increase the probability that companies committed to assisting one another will not be affected by the same storm or emergency event. Mutual assistance has occurred between and among utilities for as long as the power industry has been in existence, and more than a few tree companies followed and assisted their customer utilities who were in a mutual aid relationship with a utility affected by Harvey or Irma.
Scott Asplundh, CEO and chairman of the board of Asplundh, conveyed how cooperatively utilities and their contractors work under mutual assistance arrangements when he thanked Asplundh’s utility customers who released the company’s crews from routine work to assist with the hurricane restoration effort. In a press release, he stated, “With so many mutual assistance utilities in the strike zone for these storms, we are especially grateful to various rural electric cooperatives and municipalities for their understanding and cooperation on releases.”
While it may seem mundane during a storm recovery effort, the administrative process associated with managing a hurricane response is mind-boggling, to say the least. Think about keeping track of the deployment of thousands of personnel, tracking their food and housing needs, hours worked, expenses, safety and work practice communications.
Thanks to modern technology, DRG’s Anderson said the endeavor is a little more manageable than it once was. He explained, “Davey Tree uses G Suite (formerly Google Apps for Work) forms for workforce coordination, time and expense tracking, and more. Also, a number of our utility clients provide apps that can be assessed directly from our smartphones.”
Asplundh uses mobile time sheets, an electronic roster and an automatic vehicle management system — all items the company considers the new normal for storm restoration, with demonstrated improvements in restoration times. Some VM specialty companies, like CN Utility Consulting Inc., provided inspection and coordination services for tree-related issues in response to Irma as well as key administrative services like time sheet verification and approval to assist utilities with the mountains of paperwork that follow such a storm.
Despite extensive pre-storm preparation, organized and well-executed real-time marshaling by tree companies with their quick-response teams, resident or embedded personnel, and modern administrative aids such as G Suite, Harvey and Irma were quite challenging, to put it mildly. The size and duration of these storms as well as flooding in some areas made them difficult to stage and maintain supplies such as fuel. Nonetheless, the VM community rose to the occasion, providing people and resources in record numbers and frequently arriving among the first to the scene to help their utility clients return life to normal as quickly as possible for the millions of affected people.
Gregg Asplundh summed up his perspective on this untold story, “There is always a lot of sacrifice going on during and following major storm events. I am proud that our people, their families, and many of our customers all pitch in to get the job done for the utilities and their customers in storm-damaged areas.”
For more information on hurricane recovery, see Utility Analytics Institute's webinar featuring CenterPoint Energy's response. Jessica Sanford, Distribution Services Supervisor at CenterPoint Energy, walked through the technology and analytics utilized during Hurricane Harvey restoration efforts...