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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Power Moves

Nationwide Mobilization of Thousands of Utility Workers
to Restore Sandy Outages Prompts New Partnerships

By Mark Solof

Multi-State Fleet Response Initiative: Data Resources

Fleet Pass: An online database on national electronic toll systems like E-ZPass to promote and facilitate their use.

Fleet Move: An online database on permits, roadways, resources, weigh stations, commercial motor vehicles and tolls for fleet managers to use.

Fleet–Open/Closed (under development): An online database on open/closed status of nationwide locations for fast food, convenience stores, fuel stations, hotels and pharmacies.

Albert Parmer got the “go” order while the massive Superstorm Sandy was still in the Atlantic heading up the East Coast. An apprentice lineman working for a utility contractor in Zanesville, Ohio, Parmer and two fellow crewmen loaded into two utility trucks and headed east into Pennsylvania. They traveled for two days, spending part of their time waiting in a hotel for the storm to finish its trek and for winds to subside.


A convoy of utility trucks heads west on Interstate 80

in Pennsylvania on Nov. 12, 2012.

Then they were thrown into the battle to restore power. “We worked like dogs, basically,” said Parmer, recounting many 16- to 18-hour workdays. Their first assignment was replacing utility poles in eastern Pennsylvania. Then they were sent further into the heart of Sandy’s devastation in northern New Jersey to restore downed lines and snapped poles along streets and in suburban backyards. 

All told, the storm caused the loss of power to an estimated 8.5 million homes—2 million in New Jersey alone—many for two weeks or more. The line workers like Parmer were seen as saviors to the increasingly panicked residents, many of whom made offerings of thanks. “I saw more Dunkin Donuts and coffee than I’ve ever even fathomed,” Parmer said. In total, the Ohio crew spent 18 days undoing Sandy’s damage to the power grid.

They were among many thousands of linemen who traveled long distances to the Sandy-impact area, some from as far away as Alabama, Oklahoma, California and Canada. Some were even flown in from Hawaii. For linemen, long-distance travel on short notice to put in long hours is just part of the job (see related story). For utility companies, too, the shifting of personnel and resources across states lines to restore power after storms is an expected business practice, part of a system of voluntary mutual aid in the electric utility industry. 

But like the devastation wrought by Sandy, the scale of the utility fleet movement after the storm was unprecedented and confounded even the best-laid plans. A year later, it is causing utilities to rethink when and how they should respond to future weather events. It has also prompted the utilities to join with government and the non-profit sector to find ways to speed the movement of utility fleets for power restoration after extreme weather. Adaptation of new and existing technologies, including smartphones, will play a role.

A National Effort

Public Service Electric & Gas, New Jersey’s largest electric utility, began preparing for the storm days before it made landfall, making commitments to call in utility crews from other states, using the industry’s mutual assistance network as well as contracting with utility contractors. But the actual damage far outstripped its predicted needs. Ultimately, it had to bring in 3,500 linemen from out of state to reinforce its own 600 linemen. That’s not counting additional personnel needed for support, administration, engineering, safety and other functions. It gathered these workers from 56 utility companies. 

“That’s the most we’ve ever done in our history,” said Ernie Cadiz, PSE&G’s delivery operations support manager. “In other storms we may have brought in a maximum of 10 companies.” 

Throughout the area impacted by Sandy, some 67,000 utility workers of all kinds were mobilized to fix the power, according to the Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade group. In terms of the movement of workers from state-to-state, “It’s probably the largest we’ve ever seen in the country,” said Chris Eisenbrey, director of business continuity and operations for the institute. “We’re talking in the tens of thousands.”


Liz Roll/FEMA

Two weeks after Superstorm Sandy, utility crews from Ohio continue

working to restore power to residents in Sea Bright, N.J.

While Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in New Orleans also required marshaling national utility resources on a large scale, that storm’s devastation was more geographically focused than Sandy’s, which sprawled across 16 states, centered in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

The breadth of the storm presented considerable problems in getting resources and manpower where they were needed. “The longstanding [mutual aid] system that worked well for the industry was overwhelmed,” according to Eisenbrey. 

Through voluntary agreement, utilities are organized into nine Regional Mutual Assistance Groups across the country. Utilities in the three groups in the Northeast found themselves with no resources to spare to assist fellow utilities. And the Northeast groups came into competition with one another in reaching out for the resources of utilities in non-Sandy impacted mutual aid groups. 

Edison Electric Institute stepped in to help utilities locate and coordinate sharing in-demand resources. “We’re a policy shop, but when Sandy hit we were thrust into a leadership position to help all our members,” Eisenbrey said.  
No doubt the complications delayed power restoration in some areas. One outcome has been a proposal by the institute to consolidate the three mutual aid groups in the Northeast into one, widening the pool of resources to be shared and reducing competition. A national committee of mutual aid groups has also been formed by the institute.

Utility companies are making their own plans to prepare for the likelihood of increased extreme weather events. Hardening their assets to prevent damage in the first place is the top priority. In New Jersey, preventing switching stations and substations from flooding is a focus of PSE&G and other utilities. 

There is also a growing interest in “smart grids” to increase the ability of utilities to detect problems and make fixes and “microgrids,” small-scale local power generation systems that can be used for critical facilities such as hospitals and military bases or for vulnerable areas. The Department of Energy is partnering with New Jersey to explore the feasibility of developing the first microgrid for a U.S. transit system, called NJ TransitGrid.

Even with efforts to provide resiliency to the power grid, utilities are rethinking the complicated calculus they use to judge to what extent and how far in advance to call in often expensive outside help from other utilities or contractors. According to Cadiz of PSE&G, under the threat of billions of dollars in damage from Sandy-like storms, it may be “very prudent for us to commit to [bringing in outside] resources five days out.” But if other utilities are making the same call, competition for limited resources will increase and costs could rise with each storm, upping the pressure for rate increases over time. In short, the industry is in a state of flux, waiting to discover what the new normal will be if the predictions of more extreme weather events come to pass.

Small Transportation Hurdles Added Up to Significant Delays

Actually getting workers and equipment over the transportation network to impacted areas presents other challenges. During Sandy, thousands of linemen traveled long distances in the classic utility bucket trucks—also known commonly as “cherry pickers”— two workers to a truck, as well as in other specialized vehicles. Utility vehicle convoys, some 50 or more vehicles deep, traveled all major highways heading north and east.


FEMA

A Southern California Edison utility truck is loaded aboard

a U.S. Air Force plane in Riverside, Calif., en route to the

East Coast to assist in the recovery effort on Nov. 1, 2012.

It was a military-like mobilization of the nation’s utility resources. Indeed, three days after the storm, the Air Force flew 69 utility vehicles from Southern California to the East Coast to assist in power restoration. 

In states that declared emergencies, efforts were generally made to speed the transport of utility crews and fleets, including provision of police escorts, waiving tolls, relaxing certain permitting requirements and allowing trucks to skip weigh stations. The real problem came in “pass-through states”—those that did not declare emergencies and subjected utility vehicles to various delays.

“Every state is sovereign,” said Tom Moran, Executive Director of the All Hazards Consortium, a non-profit organization helping to coordinate national emergency responses. “They have their own unique processes. Some are more flexible than others.”

For a bucket truck traveling from Oklahoma to New York, the need to stop at five or six weigh stations and pay numerous tolls added hours to the trip. Compounding the delays were the “hours of service” regulations that limited driving time (and which for safety reasons generally could not be waived). The result was hardship for families left in the dark for additional days, waiting for their “savior” linemen to arrive.

State officials in many cases just weren’t aware of the cumulative impact of the “small” delays they imposed. The analogy is a deep sea diver with an air hose, said Eisenbrey of the Edison Electric Institute. “Most states didn’t realize they were stepping on the hose.”

Working Group Forms to Improve Future Responses

The transport delays first became the focus of discussions at meetings sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast in 2011. Then the delays reoccurred in spades with Sandy.

“Sandy was the last straw for many electric utilities,” Moran said. “They were frustrated with the inability to get their trucks quicker access across state lines.”

The utilities saw that “We could not go to the [U.S.] Department of Transportation and say wave your magic wand and make these things go away,” Eisenbrey said. At their urging, a multi-state Fleet Response Working Group was formed within the All Hazards Consortium to pursue a “bottom-up approach,” identifying and recruiting cooperation by key public and private officials responsible for decision-making affecting fleet movement. That includes utility fleet managers, emergency operations personnel, toll road authorities and state transportation officials. 

One crucial initiative involves instituting a multi-state conference call when a major storm threatens or other emergency occurs. The calls will provide a “heads-up” to key personnel on expected fleet movements and allow transportation agencies, law enforcement and others —including those in pass-through states—to make accommodations. 

To be effective, the calls must be “quick and simple,” said Moran. “We have to get on the phone for 30 minutes and get off.” In October, members of the working group conducted the first of their planned annual tabletop exercises, running through how a conference call would work—in this case preparing for the scenario of a Category 2 hurricane heading for the Mid-Atlantic states. 

Other initiatives underway (see sidebar at top right) focus on the sharing of state-by-state data on electronic tolling and truck regulations for use by fleet managers. Additional information resources and smartphone apps are under development. 

The inclusion of electronic tolling information is part of efforts to solve one of the most common fleet delays—repeated stops at toll booths. Immediately following the storm, utility trucks and vehicles delivering needed supplies were waived through tolls in impacted areas. But toll collection resumed soon after, both to support up-keep of toll roads (many of which themselves suffered storm related damage) and recognizing that contractors and others profit from storm-related work.

For vehicles with E-ZPass tags, paying the tolls did not present a problem. But thousands of vehicles from beyond the 15 states covered by E-ZPass had to pay cash tolls, adding to the accumulating delays.  

The ultimate solution is achieving nationwide coverage by compatible electronic tolling systems signed-on to by all utilities. Interim steps being explored are arrangements to make it easier for utilities to sign up to E-ZPass and shift tags to selected vehicles as needed. “The utilities really want to do this properly and safely,” Moran said.

This and other initiatives of the working group, while focused on the needs of utilities, will also help speed the movement of other vehicles needed in emergencies. Representatives of the telecommunications industry, food distribution and freight sector have participated in the working group. 

Finding Accommodations in an Unfamiliar, Powerless Area

Arriving on the scene with minimal delays is not the end of the story. Utilities crews also have to be lodged, fed and shifted among worksites—something which “in a typical storm, the utility industry has down to a science,” Eisenbrey said. During Sandy, the widespread damage greatly complicated logistics of supporting the crews.

Canadian linemen

Liz Roll/FEMA

Utility workers from Ottawa, Canada, take a break at Fort

Monmouth in Oceanport, N.J. Buildings on the grounds were

used to provide lodging to workers and area residents who

were displaced by the storm.

In hard-hit Ocean County, N.J., crews had to be housed in tents for a time and barracks at Fort Dix Air Force base were pressed into service. Cruiser-type buses were hired by utilities to shuttle crews from work sites to lodgings on the outskirts of the impacted area, some near Philadelphia. Contractors had to have staff work the phones to try to find lodging for their crews on the road.

Meanwhile arrangements had to be made to get fuel to crews in the midst of a gasoline shortage for their often extensive movement around the region. William Tuohy, one of 30 linemen traveling in 15 bucket trucks said, “We probably put on a thousand miles driving [for work] on that storm, maybe more.” His crew started in Massachusetts, went to Ocean City, N.J., and ended up in Rockaway, N.Y.

Eisenbrey said Northeastern states and utilities could learn from the “incredible logistics” network in place in Florida based on that state’s long experience with hurricanes. 

Technology may also provide help. During Sandy, the All Hazards Consortium partnered with Hughes Satellite Systems to obtain data on the status of their satellite dishes throughout the storm-impacted area. Hughes has 80 percent of the market for doing point-of-sale credit card checks at retail locations via 3.7 million satellite dishes.

The data allowed the consortium to extrapolate which locations had power and which didn’t, including gas stations, hotels, pharmacies and fast food restaurants. The data was put into spreadsheets that were distributed daily. Moran said the spreadsheets “went viral,” as one of the only reliable sources of information about the status of power in the first three or four days. He said utility crews were “pulling over to the side of the road” to open the spreadsheet and decide where to go to find lodging and supplies. The consortium is working to formalize the data distribution through a “Fleet Open/Close” web page and future smartphone app. “These are data products that we are using to support the private sector, funded by the private sector,” which government can also use, Moran said.

This and other initiatives of the working group, while focused on the needs of utilities, will also help speed the movement of other vehicles needed in emergencies. Representatives of the telecommunications industry, food distribution and freight sector are participating in the working group. 

“Sandy affected enough people that it awakened everybody to [the need to] work together,” said Moran. In emergencies, he emphasizes, “We’ve got to get power on. Government needs that, citizens need that, companies want it on fast. We’ve got to work together.” 

Mark Solof is director, public affairs and communication, at the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority.

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