During normal business hours, United Illuminating functions as a public utility, powering the homes and businesses of the greater Bridgeport-New Haven area.
But when severe weather is on the horizon, the company shifts into an organization perhaps best described as para-military, often with all hands on deck, many in roles they might not usually fill.
UI hosted Storm Media Day in June, explaining operations during a behind-the-scenes tour of the company’s Orange headquarters.
Safety is paramount in any response, Manager of Safety and Technician Training Walter Booker said. After several recent storms, lingering high winds kept linemen from going aloft to repair damaged lines.
He also had a message for those who encounter downed lines.
“If you see a wire down, don’t get anywhere close to it,” he said. He illustrated his point with a video of a ball of electricity suddenly flashing up among residents standing outside after a storm.
“A single phase could have 7,000 volts,” Booker said. Only 50 volts is needed, he said, to cause ventricular fibrillation, an unsustainable heart rhythm.
In a room that would serve as a command center during an emergency, television screens monitored weather conditions and news channels. A disturbance thousands of miles to the south or west could be the next one to bring devastation to Connecticut, and leave UI customers without power. On the day of the tour, a tropical depression was on the radar of Pat Lynch, a storm engineer for UI.
“We keep our eyes on the Caribbean every day in the summer,” Lynch said, and twice daily check with the weather department at Western Connecticut State University for more local forecasts.
If ominous clouds are on the horizon, Lynch and his team will set in motion holding workers over, calling in crews from other states and activating, in part or entirely, UI’s emergency plan.
When a crisis occurs, be it a severe summer thunderstorm that slams a few neighborhoods, or an historic hurricane like Sandy that cripples the region for weeks, UI transforms from a service company to a paramilitary organization. Roles are spelled out in procedural manuals as thick as encyclopedias, displayed and explained by Jim Cole, director of Transmission and Distribution Operations and Maintenance.
Charts define who answers to whom, following chains of command established using the Incident Command System, established after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to create a universal language and command structure to ease collaboration among agencies during a regional or national emergency.
“It’s very descriptive,” Cole said as an organizational chart was projected on a screen, explaining how it lays out the roles of those in the company, many of which shift during a crisis.
Those teams meet and prepare throughout the year, reviewing the plan and analyzing how it was followed in the latest emergency, Cole said.
The plan also sets out how, and when, to respond to outages.
“Any life-threatening situation is the utmost priority,” Cole said.
The next priority, Cole said, is working with municipalities to open roads. If wires are near downed trees, public works crews cannot clear the hazards until linemen ensure that electricity is off.
During Hurricane Sandy, Cole said, more than 1,000 roads needed to be opened in such a manner.
Following criticism from politicians after recent storms, UI has established a system that assigns liaisons to each city or town. Those liaisons are responsible for sharing updates and keeping municipal leaders informed as repairs unfold, Director of Strategic Accounts Terri Eller said.
Eller said 80 employees of UI and its sister gas companies are assigned as liaisons, with six to eight working at the state emergency operations center, and two teams assigned to the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security in the region. Others work with the 17 towns in UI’s coverage area, and account representatives work with UI and major accounts, Eller said.
In a situation that only affects one or two towns, only those towns’ liaisons are used.
The liaisons work with towns on lists of 10 locations given priority for restoration of power, such as shelters or hospitals. Bridgeport and New Haven each are given 14 priority sites, she said.
Should the damage be too much for UI to handle on its own, utilities across the country have mutual aid agreements that call for sharing of crews and trucks in the event of a massive disaster, such as hurricanes Irene and Sandy. Contractors are also hired.
Al Felice, manager of restoration, operations and maintenance, said hurricanes Irene and Sandy hit such a broad area that utilities on which UI would usually rely for mutual aid were overtaxed due to damage in their jurisdictions. Those utilities were then reaching farther for help, and trying to get limited resources from the same companies.
A national network is under discussion.
A massive paved area at UI’s headquarters in Orange contains poles, transformers, wires and other equipment needed to repair and rebuild the lines in order to restore electrical service, Supply Chain Director Mike Garzone explained as he walked the media through a meticulously organized warehouse. Boxes, each containing the tools and equipment needed to repair certain damage, are assembled during slow times so they’re ready when the storm strikes, Garzone said.
UI has its own generators to keep its emergency operations working, and is home to a seven-day fuel supply for vehicles used by its own crews and those that respond from afar. Repairs may also be made on-site.
As those repairs are made, the health and functionality of the entire system is visible to controllers on a large screen resembling a circuit board in a dark room the size of a large college classroom. So sensitive is the information that government regulations require anyone who enters to sign in, and the image displayed during the media tour was a simulation not depicting UI’s coverage area.
Customers rely on representatives who answer the telephone for information during outages, and Vice President of Customer Care Bill Reis said UI is adding an automated system so customers are not kept hanging when they call.
During Sandy, dozens of employees assigned to field calls during storms slept in cots to help handle the influx of calls, Reis said.
“Our employees did not want to go home,” he said.
UI is working with vendors on ways to provide information to its customers more quickly and through different media, Reis said. The idea is to prevent customers from hearing a busy signal and allow them to automatically report an outage. Automated mass announcements may also be coming.
Once alerted to an outage, UI headquarters dispatches crews needed based on the information it has. In that sense, the crews in the field are first responders when trouble strikes.