Executive Insight, Outage Management, Policy & Regulation

Restoration Response: A Crew by Many Other Names

Since I began writing these columns in January, the underlying theme has been about managing resources better, faster and safer. One article focused on assessing damage. Another dealt with managing change. My most-recent piece looked at making the most of the data utilities have at their disposal for restoration.

Depending on what part of the country you work in, chances are your utility tackles each one of these tasks a bit differently and may even describe the steps and process in different ways.

Standardizing the way our industry goes about business has been a recent topic of conversation. I attended a presentation by a member of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies, which is one of the industry’s oldest organizations. AEIC studies and discusses best practices through its committees made up of experts from member companies. The presentation was an overview of areas the AEIC felt could be made uniform to improve restoration response. The team–a mix of investor-owned utilities, coops and municipalities – conferred about operations and technology.

One question raised by the team:  Should our industry move to common definitions for the various types of restoration crews? Standardization is very much a piece of resource management, and a common working language can improve efficiency. But is a process more efficient if it causes us to also change the underlying way we work?

Here’s an example:  Let’s say utility A asks for line crews from utility B, which, in turn, has to reach out to one of its contractors to fill the request. Ordinarily, utility B’s contractor defines a line crew as:  A six-person team including a bucket truck with a journeyman and an apprentice, a digger truck with two line mechanics, a pick-up with a working foreman, line mechanic and a pole dolly.

Utility A defines its line crews as four-man teams with a digger and bucket truck. While the contractor and utility B efficiently operate according to their definition of a line crew, utility A sees the contractor’s line crew as two extra workers and equipment.

Does utility A accept the larger crews, or would the contractor be willing to split up the crew? Can the contractor make up another crew, or do they leave some workers idle back home? Would utility A pay the contractor for idle employees and equipment?

When requesting resources, the vast majority of utilities ask for a full-time equivalent, or FTE. When, for example, 40 FTEs arrive on a utility’s property, they’re not easily split up based on crew make-up (e.g., number of journeymen versus apprentices and supervisors). For instance, in the Northeastern U.S., utilities tend to build and dispatch two-person bucket or digger crews. If they have work orders that require both a bucket and a digger, they team them up and separate when the work is done.

Commonality for crews and equipment

Along with streamlining how we define crews should we debate common terminology for equipment? For example, a utility might request a backyard machine from a neighboring electric company. Do both utilities picture this apparatus as having hydraulically retracted tracks and being less than 48 inches in width to fit through a residential customer’s backyard gate? Does it have an auger or a bucket?

I recall a story during one of the recent hurricanes when a utility made a request for a type of high-water vehicle. The request seemed simple to the utility, but the phrase “high-water vehicle” led others to believe the machine resembled the military’s M1078 Light Medium Tactical Vehicle, a massive truck which costs more than $100,000. What the utility truly wanted were track-driven vehicles that could set poles and work in mud and water. A flurry of questions and qualifications (and some confusion) ensued, until each party realized what the situation required.

Conversations around standardizing language and terms can be tough because we’re often wedded to the way we do business. To gain a common way of referring to roles and equipment, each utility and contractor has to surrender some terms they’ve grown accustom to. One model for doing this comes from fighting wildfires. Firefighters largely have a classification that’s defined by who’s within the fire ring (i.e., the men and women who tackle the direction and flow of the fire) and those trained to be outside the ring (i.e., the ones who prevent the fire from expanding). Likewise, the naming conventions for a firefighter’s equipment and vehicles have a consistency for coordinating and expediting response.  

Getting closer to a common understanding of the make-up of what a crew is and the equipment a crew brings is a good thing; that sameness can save time and money. But in spite of that, I’m not arguing for a rigid definition that eliminates all flexibility. If, for instance, a utility makes a request for 100 FTEs, it shouldn’t mean that the response equals 20 five-person crews that can’t be split up and reallocated based on changing conditions.

Let’s instead agree on a general understanding for what defines a line crew. Perhaps that’s simply a bucket, digger and three to five distribution line mechanics who meet all OSHA requirements. In that way, when we ask for 100 FTEs, we know we’re getting approximately 25 crews. And that in turn better informs our plans and the work we apportion to restore power as quickly and safely as possible.

About the author: Jim Nowak retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility’s distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company’s operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI’s National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees. He currently serves as senior director of Operational Services for ARCOS LLC. Contact him at [email protected]