National Grid crew leader David Sanford picked up a thick rubber glove from an array of tools spread out on the asphalt in front of one of the white utility trucks. From the looks of it, he was holding a super-sized dish washing glove that extended up the forearm. The glove is designed to withstand a jolt of 15,000 volts.
Thursday morning, the news media gathered around him in the company’s Melrose Street yard in Providence and took notes and recorded what he had to say.
Sanford reached for a cylindrical device and fitted the glove around it. He compressed one end of the cylinder and started blowing up the glove that quickly looked like the arm of the Michelin Man. He was listening for escaping air.
“Any leaks on it and we touch the ground, we’re dead,” he said.
It was a reminder of how dangerous electricity can be and of the skill needed to restore power after the area has been hit by a severe storm, as was the case just about a year ago when Superstorm Sandy roared up the coast, leaving a wake of devastation. Fortunately, there are no major storms in the extended forecast and with the hurricane season on the wane; the effects of storms are not on people’s minds.
But that doesn’t mean National Grid isn’t getting ready for the worst.
September is National Emergency Preparedness Month and the company used the occasion to outline how today’s technologies enable the company to draft strategies to restore power. The display also was testament that the aftermath of Hurricane Irene had not been forgotten, which was when 330,000 Rhode Islanders lost power, some of them for more than a week.
The first step, once it is safe for crews to be out, is to assess the damage and then deploy resources so that power can be restored to as many customers as fast as possible. Getting that information requires visiting the sites and detailing the situation, whether it is a downed utility pole, fallen trees or even a transformer that may have caught fire. Those written reports would filter back to a command post, where they would be recorded and prioritized at the end of the day.
These days, the process is expedited with the use of iPads to pinpoint problems on digital maps. In addition, the company is using software tools that provide real-time information of where crews are in relation to outages.
But, as counter intuitive as it may sound, the process of restoring power starts long before power is lost.
Michael McCallan, National Grid’s director of emergency planning, said a “weather predictive” tool, developed with the help of MIT, uses information from prior storms to learn and predict future damage. Anticipating where there could be problems, for instance, a heavy growth of trees helps the company pre-deploy crews. Equipment and supplies are also at the staging points at the Knight Campus of CCRI and Twin River Casino.
Responding to a major storm or widespread outage is a company-wide responsibility. McCallan said all of the 850 employees have storm assignments. In addition, the fleet of vehicles for natural gas maintenance is also put on the front lines to assess the damage.
In the past year, the utility has developed a community liaison program, with a Grid representative assigned to every affected municipality during a storm. Their role is to provide local officials direct contact with the company. This would be helpful in identifying properties that should be prioritized for power restoration, like homes where residents are dependent on medical equipment.
At the briefing, Peter Gaynor, director of the Providence Emergency Management Agency, said city public works and police crews share information with the company. The company is also monitoring Facebook to get a read of what is happening. Still, the greatest source of information is the customer and the calls they make to report outages.
The key, says McCallan, is providing the customer with reliable information about when they can expect power to be restored. He said if the company is telling customers in a particular area they can expect the power at a specific time, then they know how long they need to wait, but then they also expect it at that time.
“We’re being prepared as much as we can,” said Timothy Horan, president of National Grid Rhode Island. “We’re very confident we can tackle any storm.”