Picture this: A massive storm is looming, forecasts expect a risk to public safety; and new details are unfolding by the minute. Whom do you run to? Family? Friends? You go to the people you can count on and with whom you have an established, trusting relationship.

It’s the same for utilities when natural disasters disrupt energy deliveries to their customers. Utilities and contractors that have established, proactive and collaborative plans and partnerships in place have a game plan for providing a safe, efficient and organized emergency response.

However, with collaboration, utilities and contractors can prepare for emergencies by identifying and removing obstacles long before a tree topples, a fault line shifts or an excavator breaches a gas distribution line.

We have outlined eight crucial steps utilities should take to establish productive relationships with contractors before emergencies occur.

Establishing and maintaining relationships with utility contractors is a year-round commitment. The days of reactionary responses to emergencies are long gone. Utility personnel and contractors who wait until an emergency occurs to start cold-calling numbers on outdated contact lists, won’t have much luck securing necessary supplies and resources in time.

Meet with current and potential vendors throughout the year. Use the time to review plans and maintain open lines of communication to mitigate potential conflicts and to establish clear expectations. Use periods of relative calm to ascertain one another’s strengths and core values, so that you can ensure that the contractor who sets foot onto your right-of-way shares your utility’s approach to doing business. Contractors need to know a utility’s:

• standards
• procedures
• outage and clearance processes
• safety and quality expectations
• system characteristics

Utilities that explain their processes and expectations to contractors before emergencies occur provide the best assistance. Frequent contact with contractors also provides opportunities to stay abreast of evolving services and techniques. Good contractors strive to continuously improve their performance to better serve their utility partners, who in turn are focused on providing their customers with quicker results and few disruptions. Frequent discussions ensure utilities are aware of the full scope of assistance a contractor can provide.

Formalize the relationship between a utility and a contractor by signing a contract long before emergency call-outs are needed. If possible, the contract should cover all details before any crews or pieces of equipment are dispatched. Be as specific as possible about the expectations you have for the crew’s performance. For example:

• What type of equipment is expected?
• What is a typical crew complement?
• Will safety and/or environmental personnel be expected to accompany the crews? At what ratio?
• How will work be tracked?
• What is the invoicing process?
• What type of safety and fall equipment is required?
• Are there specific procedures that should be followed for completing work?
• Will meals be provided?
• Will the utility provide supplies or will the contractor be responsible for procuring them?

Review and update the contract at least once a year to make sure it covers the work you might need. In many cases, a long-term blanket contract or master service agreement is an effective way to cover maintenance, integrity and emergency work.

Utilities that do not have a signed emergency blanket contract or master service agreement in place with a contractor should have a current rate letter on file in case the need arises. The letter should cover labor and equipment charges.

5.2 Michels Emergency GasDistribution 2A Michels crew exposes a pipe prior to making repairs that were identified during an integrity program. (Michels Corporation) 

When dealing with an impending emergency or its aftermath, utilities should improve situational awareness by knowing the location and type of crews available through contactor relationships and current vendors. Find out the numbers and types of vehicles per crew, the tooling geared to certain types of work, and for whom the resources are currently working. During seasons of heightened needs, such as storm season, increased reporting 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.

In addition, make sure contractors have quick access to the equipment and resources needed to address any situation.

For example, Michels was asked to perform emergency response for one client during last winter’s heavy rainfall and flooding. Because Michels already had its standard parts and fittings in its warehouse, there wasn’t any downtime assembling everything needed for the job.

Depending on the scope and size of a project, a contractor may work with one or more subcontractors to complete their assigned tasks. Ask questions to make sure the contractor will hire qualified, licensed subcontractors who uphold your utility’s values and standards. The process for vetting subcontractors can vary greatly, from informal connections to third-party verifications. Contractors and subcontractors working in your right-of-way are extensions of your utility. Avoid issues by determining how contractors qualify their subcontractors.

The fastest responder is the one already on the scene. Consider maintaining a consistent workload for contractors to ensure that resources are readily available and to increase their system knowledge. This leads to safer and more-efficient emergency responses. Also consider whether procurement, operations and design organizations are fully aligned to meet stakeholders’ demands for reliability and response.

For example, when work is slow in the winter, Michels is requested to keep at least one crew on the property for a key client. This was beneficial last winter when extreme weather required equipment to be changed out during a storm, and crews were already onsite, minimizing mobilization time and costs.

Hold regular meetings between local first responders/emergency personnel, utility operations staff and contractors. Provide the first responders with insight into your operations, procedures and the owner-contractor relationship. Many times, emergency personnel are unclear on what roles the contractors actually perform or can perform. Coordinate and clarify onsite command and control procedures so that everyone is clear on the chain of command and their points of contact.

For example, Michels has held regular emergency preparedness meetings with a major utility client. Discussions at these meetings changed where Michels stored certain unique tools so that they were available for emergencies at more locations rather than only at a central warehouse.

5.3 Michels GasDistribution 3 A Michels crew preforms a directional drill while doing maintenance work. (Michels Corp.)

Are contractors aware of your diversity goals? Discuss them and ask specific questions about how your contractor will help meet those goals. Also ask for details on in-house supplier diversity, supply chain programs and reporting strategies. This will help ensure the contractor will meet your expectations and will provide you with a way to accurately capture that data. Take time to discuss your contractor’s participation in local, regional and national supplier diversity associations and outreach efforts.

As industry demands change, it’s important to work together to improve response time and effectiveness. Developing relationships to serve utility customers is essential, and participating in regional mutual assistance groups and industry associations can help. Mutual assistance can pay dividends in response times and eliminate confusion in the wake of storms and other emergencies. 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. Making this a priority will establish a valuable foundation so that post-emergency efforts can focus on repairs and restoration rather than paperwork.

The best way to respond to an emergency is to have a plan in place long before it’s needed. When contractors and utilities know and trust one another before an unexpected need arises, the customers will benefit.

Header image: A Michels crew welds a sleeve into place to repair a section of pipe in need of reinforcement. (Michels Corporation)

5.H Landon Kluck headshot

Landon Kluck

5.H Ben Nelson headshot

Ben Nelson

Landon Kluck is vice president of Western Power Transmission and Distribution at Michels, and has more than 20 years’ experience in power distribution and construction. He can be reached at lkluck@michels.us.

Ben Nelson is vice president of Pipeline Construction Western Operations at Michels and has more than 20 years’ experience in pipeline construction. He can be reached at bnelson@michels.us.