Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How Does This Work?

Location: Troubleshooter ride-a-long, West Akron Line Shop

You’d think there has to be an easier way to do this work than to go 30 feet up a ladder in the rain or snow or wind and work on live wires carrying voltage. But there’s not. The work can be hazardous and requires hour after hour of concentrated focus on safety, as well as physical strength and stamina, to execute successfully. This is particularly true during storm restoration work, when 16-hour shifts are the norm and the work can last for weeks.

Of course, I’m absolutely not qualified to be doing the work of a lineman. Technically, I’ll be an observer. I am not going to be up in a bucket truck, dealing with live or depowered wires. In fact, I can’t even direct traffic.

My adventures in the field start with a ride-a-long with what we call a troubleshooter. Troubleshooters respond to everyday reports of damage or outages, investigate the scene and, if possible, make the needed repairs. If necessary, a troubleshooter can call in other crews to assist. Often, local fire or police are already on-scene if there’s a wire down, particularly if it’s across a roadway.

Back to Basics

As we drive toward our first trouble spot, I recall the basics of my safety briefing:

  • Always wear all of your personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Don’t touch anything on-site, not even the bucket truck
  • When you arrive, you cannot know what has happened, what will happen or what is waiting for you just around the block, so be aware in all directions at all times – up, down, front, back, side to side.

Finding The Trouble Spot

The first surprise: you have to find the trouble spot by looking for the actual problem up on a pole. Not only are wires difficult to trace visually against a wooded background, but the troubleshooter has to know what the equipment should look like when it’s working and when it’s not.

To find the trouble spot, we drive slowly and do a visual inspection, which we cut short when we see a township fire vehicle waiting for our arrival.

I notice it takes a little bit of extra effort just to extract myself from the truck because office boy isn’t used to wearing steel-toed protective work boots under dielectric anti-conductive boots, which are somewhat heavier than his usual dress shoes.

Once out of the truck, I can hear a sparking noise. We find one wire of a three-wire residential service line on the ground, and the other two lines touching, sparking and spitting smoke The troubleshooter quickly set up his bucket truck, went up the pole and snipped the live wires. The sparking and smoking stopped. Then he took his ladder to the house and checked for stray voltage. “Sometimes, if a house has a generator and it’s set up improperly, it can feed power back into the lines.”

No generator in use. The job is safe. Within the hour, the home is restored to service and we’re off to our next call – a “no lights” call several miles away.

Another visual inspection reveals a blown fuse at the pole serving the area up the road. Although it is pointed out to me, I am unable to see it or determine how the troubleshooter knows that’s the spot, but a quick drive up the road and we find an distribution line on the ground, obviously broken when a dead tree fell against it. The fire department had marked the area off with traffic cones. Quickly, our plan of attack was determined. First, cut the dead tree out of the way. Second, find both ends of the line on the ground and use a winch to pull them back together, then splice them together. Third, go back down the road and replace the fuse, restoring service.

Lessons Learned

The lessons included that common sense in the field allows us to best serve customers sometimes. I also learned that knowing how the bits and pieces of our electric grid work – what they look like, what they do, how and why they fail – is priceless knowledge for the folks who restore service.

Up next: storm restoration. I’m heading to Maryland to see up close how this process works as crews restore service following some bad winter weather.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Preparing for Field Duty

Location: Corporate Offices, Akron, Ohio

When I first started working for the company, I recall a line crew boss telling me about how much both the training and the equipment had improved over the years.

I doubt anyone in any area of this company could honestly tell you that they aren’t exposed to safety messages on a regular basis, particularly the folks who work on the lines and in the power plants. This hyper focus on safety at all levels of the organization has paid off, with a dramatic decrease over the years in the number of what we call “OSHA recordables” – incidents that must be reported to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration. It’s remarkable what can be accomplished when the entire organization has the “one accident is too many” mindset.

Continuing to improve on this performance requires an almost fanatical dedication to safety, with regular discussions and safety reminders at every turn in a line worker’s day. This focus is why I find myself completing online training courses, meeting with our safety department, and acquiring appropriate gear before I can even ride along with a crew. Anyone who spends time in the field, around the wires, must know the safety basics – there is simply no other option. When brought down by a storm, power lines can become extremely and, more important, unpredictably dangerous. Live wires on the ground don’t always jump around and spark like you see on TV. Dead wires on the ground don’t always stay unpowered, either.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Safety 101: There Are No Stupid Questions

My long path to riding with line crews starts with a meeting to discuss the basics. The first thing Mark Mroczynski, director of Operations Support for Ohio Edison, tells me is that there are no stupid questions.

“If you don’t know, ask. If you’re not sure, ask. There’s no shame in not knowing. The shame is in failing to recognize that you don’t know and going ahead, anyway.”

I begin with several questions that may or may not actually be stupid:

Q. What clothing do I need to do this?

A. You need flame-resistant pants, shirts, jackets and special boots that won’t conduct electricity. Basically, everything over your underwear has to be flame resistant.

Q. Why are we assuming my socks and underwear are OK for this duty?

A. They just need to be made of all natural fibers, typically cotton or wool, and they can’t have any logos or synthetics in them. Everything over that has to be flame resistant.

He continues to explain what clothing I need. Pants and then shirts, sweatshirts and jackets I can layer. “You can go from cold in the morning to warm in the afternoon and back to cold when the sun goes down, so you’ll want to have enough layers that you’ll be comfortable all day.”

OK, another perhaps obvious question:

Q. Why do I need flame-resistant clothing? If I accidentally come in contact with high voltage, how are my clothes going to help me?

A. The flame-resistant clothing isn’t for voltage, it’s for arc flashes. Sometimes, electricity behaves in funny ways, and if you’re exposed to an arc flash, it can definitely burn you, and the last thing you want is for it to both burn you and catch your clothes on fire.

This is not a conversation I have ever had when receiving a new laptop computer in my office. In fact, to date, the most protective gear I’ve ever worn to any office is casual shoes to keep from slipping on ice in the parking lot.

My New Threads

Armed with his instructions, I head to the worker’s clothing store and proceed to spend every bit of the money they’ve set aside to keep me safe, and then some. The most remarkable thing is that the clothing doesn’t look like special safety gear – jeans, work shirts and the like are plain and serviceable, but wouldn’t draw attention in a public place. There goes my plan to show off my fancy fireproof pants in the next staff meeting.

Me: “Look, it says FR on the tag, for flame resistant!”

Co-worker: “Yeah, those are jeans, dude. Whatever.”

While trying on clothing, I have a moment when it hits me that this stuff is flame resistant. Flame-resistant clothing. I could be exposed to things that will burn me. I note quietly that this, too, is not in my official job description. I also note that thousands of my co-workers live with this reality every day, and although it is foreign and a bit scary to me at first, it’s business as usual for the folks who work on the wires.