Learning from the COVID-19 pandemic’s first act

As the weeks and months of living with COVID-19 have ticked by, utilities are adapting their crewing and staffing strategies and tactics. The pandemic plans that utilities had in place before the onset of the novel coronavirus were rooted in the H1N1 influenza response a decade ago. But the industry’s new challenges are driving invention.

Take daily operations for example. In talking to industry professionals for this article, I learned about approaches managers are taking to protect crews and customers. Supervisors are assembling smaller groups of crews across disparate locations, like substations, where they can more easily keep physical distancing in place for things like morning huddles.

Some utilities are asking crew members to drive their vehicle home to tie together worker and vehicle, thus mitigating cross-contamination from sharing trucks. At other companies, after a day’s work, crew chiefs leave company vehicles parked and locked within the confines of a substation or yard to return the next day for the morning huddle. This does bring other challenges to perform the required work such as fueling vehicles, stocking trucks and replenishing material. But by keeping a crew together, if a self-quarantine becomes necessary, utilities say they can more easily isolate a possible infection and reduce spread. With the same crew members working together daily, equipment-sharing happens among a smaller group, too, possibly reducing the risk of infections from contaminated fomites or surfaces.

Some companies are enlisting technology to help with social distancing by providing work packets from a work management system via truck computers or through smart technology on a mobile device along with a safety message for the day. A weather message might be: “Wind speed now exceeds the ability to safely occupy the bucket in your truck, put your bucket in its cradle and conduct other work.” A traffic-congestion alert during gray-sky might come from federal or state emergency groups telling crews to avoid certain routes because organizations are delivering equipment related to COVID-19 response or an interstate is closed due to flooding.

One Northeast utility questioned whether it was feasible to have dispatchers work from home, since they access SCADA systems. But if a worker is purely dispatching crews and not performing any remote switching or tagging, then a utility can supply these employees with outage information, which means that working from home then becomes an option.

People who have to come to the office are system operators and switching-and-tagging operators whose job entails keeping tabs on the SCADA system. That’s a challenge for maintaining physical distancing among, say, 10 system operators. For some, the solution has been monitoring temperatures, wearing masks and testing workers before they enter the office. Another mitigation strategy has been relying on smaller groups of operators. If one person falls ill, the group can sequester or self-quarantine, while a back-up group takes its place. Another utility has assigned individual workstations, so there is less concern of infection from multiple users when changing shifts.

Navigating unplanned work during the pandemic

In late March, to mitigate the novel coronavirus threat to operations, El Paso Electric Company chose to handle emergency callouts by keeping its daily crews together; the switch meant the utility wouldn’t mix crew members who weren’t ordinarily working together. The utility created a system within its automated callout software for assigning pre-set groups to after-hour callouts, instead of building a crew composed of the first, available responders.

“With the new approach, we call out a crew as a pre-determined unit,” said Jason Villanueva, supervisor of Distribution Dispatch at El Paso Electric Company. “It’s a way we’re using technology to respond to customers, while navigating the novel coronavirus.” In this way, employees (represented or not) and management are working together to keep the lights on.

Gray-sky operations also present a crewing challenge that utilities are working through. Some outside crews may hesitate to leave their state and cross borders. If we see a second wave of the novel coronavirus this fall, 14-day quarantines for crossing state lines might occur more broadly. Nevada has required residents to self-quarantine for 14 days once they return home. In that scenario, some utility employees might find it challenging if, for instance, they live in one state and cross the border to work in a service center located in a neighboring state. Utilities have been and will surely continue to ask for exemptions for these essential workers.

Even if a utility is requesting crews from neighboring territories within the same state, managers are wrestling with how to provide lodging. Since many hotels are closed, some utilities have looked at putting cots in utility office locations that have also temporarily shuttered. In other gray-sky instances, utility managers are asking hotels to open and guarantee the same cleaning staff will be on hand to disinfect rooms each day. Some hotels see this as a chance to boost revenue, so they’ve agreed to the stricter cleaning guidelines. In turn, managers are assigning crew members to occupy the same room for the duration of an event.

Preparing for act two

Most pandemics have multiple waves. As America gets back to work, some utilities are thinking about preparing for a second wave of the novel coronavirus. Preparation could mean taking this time to ramp up re-training and cross-training. Perhaps, utilities could look at broadening who receives, for instance, damage assessor training and tracking who’s acquiring these news skills, so back-up personnel can be called if infections spike this fall and the workforce temporarily thins due to sick leave.

Many utilities will, in the coming weeks, bring workers back after months away from the office; there will be adjustments. Utilities have learned in this pandemic that they can work efficiently and remotely with the right combination of laptops, smartphones, tablets, vehicle-equipped computers and SaaS-based programs not available in the days of the H1N1 outbreak. The workload and regulations haven’t changed. But utilities may have already learned that they can adjust workers’ schedules and location based on peak demands and staffing levels, which may be a key to even more efficiency.

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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.

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