Within the past dozen years or so, hurricanes have become more severe and more frequent, causing catastrophic damage across the United States and Caribbean. In response, utility crews from all over North America are called to brave the elements and assist in storm restoration efforts. While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how utilities think about travel and assisting others, we sat down with PSE&G’s own mutual aid expert, Ernie Cadiz, to get a better understanding of how this process works.
- What is “mutual aid?”
It’s when a utility sends workers to help restore service to customers of other companies. The utility industry is somewhat unique in that we all help each other during weather emergencies.
- When do we send mutual aid to other utilities?
Whenever we are asked and have the resources available. The hosting utility pays the cost. Sometimes we can’t send mutual aid because we are unsure of the track of a storm heading our way. We have to hold our folks in New Jersey until danger of damage passes in our service area.
- When do we ask for mutual aid?
It’s not an exact science, because every storm is different. But we’ve learned from storms over the past 50 years and are pretty good at predicting the number of outages and resources we will need to recover from nor’easters, ice storms and Category 1 hurricanes.
One of our recent most damaging storms was Hurricane Isaias where we predicted the outages would fall somewhere between Floyd and Irene, and we were right. Turns out, it now ranks as our 3rd most disruptive storm, right ahead of an October 2011 snowstorm that took us by surprise.
- How many employees do you send on a typical mutual aid assignment?
Our first wave is typically about 140 employees. That includes lineworkers, safety professionals, mechanics and logistical support personnel. If there is flooding, we send gas personnel. We can send more people when needed.
- How many trucks would that require?
When we’re under COVID-19 protocols, each person must travel independently – so about 140. In more routine conditions it takes about 85 vehicles – bucket trucks, 75-foot pole trucks, pickups and cars, and a command vehicle.
- What’s the biggest challenge for mutual aid operations?
Logistics and fuel. Getting volunteers is usually not a problem. It’s finding a place for crews to sleep and eat, and getting the right equipment and poles to the right locations. Just as fuel can be scarce for customers, it can be hard to find for us, as well. Of course, the pandemic presents a new set of logistical challenges.
There are challenges for the folks that stay home, too. They have to pick up the extra duty created by others being away.
- What is a typical day like when deployed on a mutual aid assignment?
Mutual aid crews typically work 16-hour days. We wake up at about 5:30 a.m., eat breakfast at 6, and at 7 gather together to have a safety briefing, review the previous day’s work, go through the weather and talk about the day’s work ahead, as much as we know at the time.
When a crew gets their assignment for the day, they have their own tailboard to talk about the work, then pick up the equipment they think they’ll need from the materials area. Ideally, their truck will have been fueled overnight. But it doesn’t always work that way.
They take a boxed lunch to have on the road, and return to the staging area in the evening for a meal. Sleeping arrangements can range from a cot in a large tent, to a bunk in a trailer, or if we’re lucky, a hotel room. The good news is you are so tired at the end of the day, it is easy to sleep.
- What are “staging areas?”
They’re pop-up utility cities where material and equipment are stored and trucks can be fueled. During Sandy, PSE&G set up 12 staging areas across the state. Today, we have 22 staging areas identified, and have specific site plans and role assignments for each.
- What do you like most about coordinating mutual aid?
After Sandy, 4,500 lineworkers and support personnel from as far away as New Mexico, Florida and the Province of Quebec came to PSE&G’s aid. We know the importance of getting the lights back on for customers, and feel fortunate when we are able to assist.