Powering Strong Communities
Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Competition and collaboration

Before COVID-19 changed all our plans, I would have spent this week in Kansas City – first over the weekend at the Public Power Lineworkers Rodeo and then starting Sunday night at APPA’s Engineering and Operations Conference. For those of you unfamiliar with what a Lineworkers Rodeo is, I will attempt to enlighten you. A huge field is populated with utility poles, lines, and other (unelectrified) equipment for competitions – how quickly, safely and accurately utility lineworkers can traverse the poles and perform tasks such as crossarm changeouts or rescuing a fellow “worker” (correctly weighted dummy). There are apprentice lineworkers and the more experienced journeymen, both of whom compete in their own categories. Apprentices must also take a written test. Scores are tallied at the end of the day and the winning individuals and teams are presented trophies at an evening banquet. In sum, it is a huge learning experience coupled with a fun competition. Neither of which could be proxied “virtually,” just as utility lineworkers cannot step away from their jobs in the field and work from a computer. They must be able to respond at a moment’s notice, pandemic or not.

Our Engineering and Operations Conference is a more traditional event – speakers, breakout sessions, vendor expo, receptions – with a focus on the people, practices, standards, infrastructure and technology that enable the lights to stay on until the lineworkers have to step in to restore power in the aftermath of a storm. During the past few weeks, quite a few storms have tested our systems. Tornadoes and major thunderstorms have taken down utility poles and caused significant outages, particularly in the Southeast. APPA members in Jonesboro, Arkansas and Chattanooga, Tennessee called on mutual aid in the region to help get their systems back up and running after tornadoes caused severe damage. These were some of the first tests of mutual aid during a pandemic, and these utilities have already shared lessons learned with the rest of the industry. All involved had a heightened focus on hygiene, applied social distancing as much as possible, and used personal protective equipment where available. When called upon to provide mutual aid, public power utilities responded (With the exception that some states have forbidden critical workers to cross state lines – a practice not conducive to restoring power after major storms and one that should be rethought in the context of clear safety guidelines amid a pandemic).

The quick response to, and safe restoration of, these communities is no accident. Public power utilities are constantly working to improve their safety and reliability as well as plan for event response and the deployment of mutual aid. In fact, this week we are honoring those public power utilities that achieved the Reliable Public Power Provider (RP3) designation as well as APPA’s Safety Awards. Since we cannot be in person for our Engineering and Operations Conference, we’re acknowledging these achievements in the press and online. But the real achievements can be witnessed every minute of every day as the lights stay on and we can safely work from home, hospitals can treat patients, and food can be farmed, packaged, and delivered.

I sincerely hope we can all convene next year for the Public Power Lineworkers Rodeo and Engineering and Operations Conference in Pasadena, California. And I also want to thank the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities for building the Rodeo grounds and undertaking myriad other preparations for the event – I cannot express my appreciation enough for their efforts, but also for their graciousness when I had to make the decision to cancel. Finally, I want to extend my heartfelt congratulations to the winners of our Safety Awards and the 2020 RP3 designees – and to thank all our public power utility engineers, control room operators, generation managers and, last but not least, lineworkers. Your work is crucial, and I appreciate it every day.