MANAGING STORM RESPONSE IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST
Record-breaking rainfall, heavy mountain snow, unrelenting winds — the Pacific Northwest saw it all during the 2015-2016 season. At Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD), north of Seattle, the utility managed four major storms, some of the costliest in its history at $17.2 million collectively. The largest, a mid-November gale, brought wind gusts near 70 mph and knocked out power to more than 200,000 customers, two-thirds of the utility’s customer base.
“We haven’t seen a winter season quite like it,” said Chris Heimgartner, PUD assistant general manager of distribution services. “Our success with storm restoration starts with the dedication of our crews. They know how to do their jobs safely and efficiently. And, as an organization, we know how to mobilize people quickly. That made all the difference.”
Storm planning starts well ahead of the winter season with refresher training for key staff, procurement of materials and equipment — poles, transformers and splices — and the finalization of contractor and mutual-aid contracts before storms blow in from the Pacific Ocean.
The PUD’s new three-story, 37,000-square-foot Energy Control & Data Center serves as the hub for storm operations. It’s the coordination point for all repairs, upgrades and storm response. Big-screen monitors allow staff to view the SCADA system, access PUD network information, and monitor weather services and news coverage during major emergencies.
Three to four days ahead of storms, the utility participates in National Weather Service briefings and tracks other regional weather reports.
One of the changes to the utility’s storm management philosophy in recent years has been a move to secure workforce resources from contractors and mutual aid utilities well ahead of need so that it’s always prepared to hit the ground running. With three large electric utilities in Western Washington, a strong winter storm creates a highly competitive market for skilled service and line crews. In recent storms, the PUD has put as many as 500 workers in the field, with several hundred others behind the scenes in supporting roles.
“We’ve become a lot more aggressive in our response and can ramp up by bringing in more outside resources much quicker,” said Rob McManis, the PUD’s senior manager distribution construction services, who also serves as a storm manager. “A restoration effort that may have taken a week or longer 10 years ago has essentially been cut to a few days.”
Ongoing staff training ensures that the many people involved in a storm can transition from their typical day jobs to storm jobs, which often are very different roles requiring a different skill set. Many of the organization’s engineers, for example, become crew guides or field assessors who identify the extent of the damage.
Snohomish PUD assigns two-person teams for both its crew guides and assessors, which is a less common practice among utilities. It also has dramatically increased the number of field assessors. While it may have had six to 10 teams assigned to a storm a couple of years ago, for the latest storms, it dispatched up to 20 assessor teams in the field.
“It allows us to rapidly determine the extent and location of damages, schedule repairs and get an estimate of how long it will take to bring our customers’ power back,” said Heimgartner.
Throughout the year, the utility proactively makes considerable investments in pole and underground cable replacement. During the past year, it replaced 900 poles and 50 miles of underground cable. It worked to assess and treat another 10,000 poles. Ongoing tree-trimming efforts along transmission and distribution lines — up to 750 circuit miles annually — greatly enhance reliability, particularly in heavily wooded areas.
“What’s unique about the Pacific Northwest is the density of our vegetation,” said Heimgartner. “We have forests that grow to the edge of our roads. With our hills, curved roads and woods, our line of sight can be limited to 150 yards or less. We have much different conditions than other parts of the country.”
Nor do many regions get the variety of weather as the Northwest — the snowstorms, wind events, mudslides, heavy rain and flooding. The PUD relies on a specialized set of tools, depending on the conditions. To access more difficult areas, it has deployed snow cats, snow mobiles and ATV Gators. With often cold and wet working environments, hand warmers and truck dryers are essential.
In addition, the PUD has developed much closer connections with emergency management agencies, which largely consist of local police and fire departments, and the county Department of Emergency Management. They serve as additional eyes and ears in the field, and provide critical support in more dangerous situations.
Following major storm events, Snohomish PUD holds after-action reviews for post-incident analysis of what worked and areas for improvement. One of the changes it made this past year is to have closer communication among the corporate communications, key accounts and customer service department leads inside the utility’s storm center. The PUD also has increased the frequency of outage reports — both internally and externally — and supplemented outage data with photos and video of what crews are experiencing in the field. Social media posts such as Twitter and Facebook have been expanded and additional staff are assigned to this role during storms.
Providing greater access to outage information via multiple channels has been key to improving customer satisfaction.