January 23, 2019

Unsung Heroes

A deeper look into post-storm power restoration efforts


NORTHERN MICHIGAN — The delivery of electricity to homes and businesses is something that can be taken for granted, but after a power outage the reality of the work involved becomes more clear.

In the early morning hours Dec. 5, high sustained winds and even stronger wind gusts knocked out power to more than 39,000 customers of the Consumers Energy West Branch Service Center, which tends to nine counties in the region — Arenac, Gladwin, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Montmorency, Oscoda, Roscommon and Crawford counties.

However, the storm didn’t come as a surprise to Consumers Energy, according to Keith Owen, central zone manager for Alma, Clare and West Branch.

“With this particular incident we knew we were going to be hit,” he said. “We had expected the southeast portion of the state to not be affected as much as other areas and we moved resources out of that area of the state into other areas. We knew the west side of the state was going to take the brunt of this.”

Owen said the company is in a constant state of weather monitoring to allow for proper planning of work crew mobilization. In this incident, crews had already begun mobilizing prior to the storm.

As the company tracks weather patterns and sees storm systems moving across the state, it continues the shuffle to make the most effective use of its “boots on the ground.”

“Through a systematic call statewide, we knew where we wanted everybody prior to the storm,” Owen said. “Then once there is an escalation — seeing the weather move across the region — we start moving crews.”

In the Dec. 5 storm and the outages that followed, Consumers had brought crews from Southeast Michigan north to cover areas that were anticipated to be hardest hit.

Despite the company’s best efforts, Mother Nature maintained the upper hand for a while after the storm system moved in, blanketing the area with sustained winds that posed a challenge for the crews on the ground.

“Safety is number one,” Owen said. “We are out in front of it. We work under the (Incident Command) System and monitor the weather. From a safety perspective, a lot of that is maintaining safety throughout the storm. We can’t fly our high-lift devices once we reach sustained winds of 35 mph.”

Through the ICS, the company is able to stay in contact with county 911 centers, fire departments and police agencies. Owen said that communication allows the company to move into place whatever is necessary without losing a step.

He said the ground crews are in constant contact with dispatch personnel in the office, communicating the status of the weather and the conditions in the field.

One of the challenges in high-wind events is the plethora of ash trees left for dead by the emerald ash borer. Owen said the company works to keep its 15-foot right of way clear on each side of the lines. However, each ash tree is 60-70 feet of firewood just waiting to fall.

“With this type of event we have a lot of danger trees,” he said. “We had one incident where a tree fell in close proximity of one of our employees.”

According to West Branch Field Leader Glenn Schmidt, one employee was up in a bucket when he heard a nearby tree begin to crack and show signs that it was giving way. The employee ducked in the bucket but his elbow was exposed and suffered a minor injury.

Crews worked around the clock, barring any high winds that kept them grounded, to restore power to the thousands left in the dark following the storm. According to Mark Debenedictis, senior field leader for Eastern Michigan and restoration director in charge during this last storm, crews work on a 16-8 schedule during events, putting in twice the average work day for many before having eight hours to rest.

In total, the nearly 100 employees at the West Branch Service Center and its 26 linemen and five apprentices, along with dozens of crews from around the state, managed to restore power to the majority of Consumers’ customers by Dec. 6. However, some remained in the dark until 8 p.m. Dec. 7 — more than 60 hours after the winds began to hit the area.

Following events with widespread crew mobilization, Debenedictis said the company looks to its nighttime and on-call crews to fill in the gaps until the staff is fully recovered.

“After you have done this for an eternity, the minute you turn loose of crews after an event, you start working on your next operational event,” he said. “It gets ingrained in your psyche.”

Owen said it is the staff of the company that makes the restorations possible.

“The people with the boots on the ground are what make this happen,” he said. “They are the ones turning the lights back on. All we are trying to do is provide them a safe and productive work environment.”

“You have a lot of people in the office; our dispatch really have to be on key,” Schmidt added. “They have the big picture of where our crews are and when we are getting ready to energize a wire. They make sure everyone is in the clear before any line is energized. The safety of our employees is number one.”

Any time a customer experiences a power outage, they should contact the company by phone at 800-477-5050 or online at consumersener



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