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Mobilizing across many miles for mutual assistance

No doubt you know that thousands upon thousands of utility workers are battling extraordinary conditions around the clock to try and restore power for hundreds of thousands of people along the Mid-Atlantic coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and then this week's Nor'easter. Some portions of the Northeast this week received a foot of snow on top of downed power lines and flooded out neighborhoods from last week. What you may not fully appreciate is the range and breadth of dedicated help that arrives when significant storms overwhelm local utilities and their power restoration efforts.

Electric companies impacted by significant outages routinely call on sister utilities to help speed power restoration. Men and women from utilities from all corners of the country have descended most particularly upon New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in an all-hands mission known as Mutual Assistance. The Edison Electric Institute formally established its Mutual Assistance Program in 1955, and it has become the cornerstone of utility assistance during emergencies. EEI has a fabulous tally of the mutual assistance efforts in the East to date.

According to EEI, more homes and businesses lost power as a result of Sandy than from any other storm . . . in history. Hundreds of thousands remained without power this week when the snow-making Nor'easter arrived. The almost unfathomable plight of so many in the East quickly caught the attention of power companies out West. Pacific Gas and Electric dispatched fully 250 of its workers to the Northeast. The deployment is believed to represent the company's largest assistance effort ever for a fellow utility. And Southern California Edison sent nearly 200 of its workers East to assist.

PG&E and SCE rank among the largest of America's electric utilities, meaning they could bring to bear significant resources in personnel and equipment for the storm recovery.

Among the hundreds of relief and restoration workers sent from California are underground and overhead damage-assesment personnel, electric field safety specialists, tree trimmers, and line workers. This was a real battalion of hard hats and suitcases shipped thousands of miles to a region that in many respcts still resembles a war zone.

Many PG&E personnel were enjoying the telecast of their beloved San Francisco Giants clinching the World Series on October 29 when supervisors rang their phones and instructed them to pack up and ship out. Though line workers often are on jobs for weeks at a time, the mission in this instance necessarily brought great uncertainty about the conditions workers would encounter.

Both California utilities sent more than manpower, too: heavy equipment -- some 630 tons worth! -- including bucket trucks and line trucks. The United States Air Force, at the behest of President Obama, deployed six C-5 and eight C-17 transport cargo aircraft to move the utilities' relief equipment across the country, much of it coming from Southern Cal Edison.

A good many of the California utility workers had never been to the greater New York region, let alone attempted to restore power through hurricane ("Frankenstorm") conditions, including the arrival of a very early winter. The workers were told to bring rain gear and a sweater -- not much comfort for a foot of snow. These workers have exhibited extraordinary bravery and dedication, and many will remain thousands of miles from family for weeks while carrying out their restoration efforts.

"We arrived late Thursday, November 1, and began dispatching our crews in coordination with local utilities on Saturday (after Sandy)," Southern California Edison's Dan Chung told me. "Our personnel have been working 16-hour days, yet I've personally witnessed nothing but the highest morale amongst the crew. They've worked through rain, 35-mph winds, sleet, and even a foot of snow."

In nuclear plant operations, there's longstanding protocol to mobilize and assist as needed the moment word arrives of a neighbor plant experiencing a technical or safety challenge. Among electricty utilities, that same spirit of assistance has been in place more than 50 years, getting homes and businesses powered back up faster than they otherwise would.

“We are in the midst of a great American story,” said EEI president Tom Kuhn of the ongoing utility assistance.

Comments

Excellent report!

Marcel F. Williams

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