Local television reporters are feverishly warning that a major storm is about to hit.
Area residents are busy filling grocery carts with water and non-perishable foods, putting new batteries into their flashlights, filling their gas tanks and charging their cell phones.
However, utilities and contactors can create a winning team for storm response by identifying and removing obstacles — long before a storm cell forms, a spark ignites or a fault line shifts.
Long gone are the days when storm response was largely reactive — when storm contractors and utility personnel would wait until a storm was about to hit to call everyone in their Rolodexes to line up work and secure needed supplies and resources.
Today, utilities and contractors are expected to orchestrate and provide storm response that is safe, efficient and organized. But first, utilities need to consider the “big picture,” and clear self-imposed obstacles to ensure an effective emergency response.
Here are some steps utilities can take beforehand to better work with contractors before emergencies arise:
Don’t wait until after a storm is identified to start making contact with contractors. Make a year-round commitment to establishing and maintaining relationships. Many potentially fruitful relationships are tainted by unclear expectations that could lead to frustration and conflict during a response. Meeting with current and new vendors throughout the year to develop relationships, review plans and maintain open lines of communication can help mitigate potential conflicts. It also can help to keep everyone on task during a response. An initial benefit of communication is for both contractors and the utility to understand one another’s approaches to core values such as safety, teamwork, dependability and value.
Once relationships are established, formalize the arrangement with a contract well in advance of storm callouts. Be as specific as possible about the expectations the utility has for arriving crews. For example:
All details should be addressed long before any crews and pieces of equipment are dispatched, and they should be reviewed and updated at least once per year.
Utilities that do not have a signed storm response contract with a contractor can still have a current rate letter on file to handle labor and equipment charges, should the need arise.
Utilities and contractors are expected to orchestrate and provide storm response that is safe, efficient and organized.
Situational awareness can be improved by requesting information on the location and type of crews available through contractor relationships and current vendors. Useful information may include types and numbers of vehicles per crew, tooling that may be geared to a certain voltage level, and for whom those resources are currently working for. Weekly or more frequent reports during seasons of heightened storm threats can help a utility more accurately forecast response and restoration times, be better prepared for mutual assistance calls, and be ready to offer or request resources when necessary.
The fastest responder is the one who is already on the scene. Consider whether procurement, operations and design organizations are fully aligned to meet stakeholders’ demands for reliability and response. Maintaining a consistent workload for contractors allows resources to be readily available and to increase their system knowledge. This leads to a safer and more efficient emergency response. If a utility uses few contract crews, response times may be longer than it could be otherwise.
As industry demands continue to change, it’s important to work together to help improve response. Developing relationships to serve utility customers is essential, and participating in regional mutual assistance groups and industry associations, such as the Western Energy Institute, can help.
Understanding and using mutual assistance can pay dividends in response times and eliminate confusion in the wake of the storm. Encourage vendors to participate where appropriate, and help them better understand the challenges faced by a utility. Sharing experiences, frustrations and best practices can help everyone learn how to move a utility forward, and the relationships developed and the communication channels opened can prove critical when facing a major response event.
The importance of communicating early, often and effectively cannot be overstated. By taking steps throughout the year, emergency response can be a mutually triumphant one. Together we’ll get the lights back on.
Landon Kluck is vice president, West Transmission and Distribution, and Brett Hurlburt is vice president, East Transmission and Distribution. Both have coordinated many of Michels’ storm and emergency response efforts.