A microburst that hit the town of Groton, Mass., this month not only brought the typical challenges that come with power restoration efforts, but also the added responsibility of making sure that utility personnel are protected from possible exposure to COVID-19.
But Groton Electric Light Department’s effective initial response to the power outages, a quick transition to bringing in lineworker crews to help with restoration through the Northeast Public Power Association’s (NEPPA) mutual aid program, all while maintaining a focus on mitigating potential COVID-19 exposure, ensured that the restoration response to the microburst was a success.
The microburst, which packed winds in excess of 100 miles per hour, hit Groton on Friday, May 15. That evening, there were 1,600 customers without power in the town.
Kevin Kelly, General Manager of Groton Electric Light Department, said that Gil Finch, the utility’s foreman, and his assistant Jon Patterson were able to do a quick survey of the damage density that night and decided to separate destruction caused by the microburst from the rest of the circuit. The damaged circuit covered the eastern one-fourth of Groton.
“So, we separated the destroyed northeast section from the central east section,” Kelly noted in an email.
A few hours later, the utility was able to bring back most of the lost lake/four corners area (central east and southeast). “We made steady progress in the outlying areas until about 2:00 a.m. when we were able to begin to get close to the devastated area,” Kelly said.
In those early morning hours, Kelly made the decision to seek assistance from other public power utilities through mutual aid.
Nick Lawler, Chair of NEPPA’s Mutual Aid Committee since 2015, noted that NEPPA has had an active mutual aid program since the 1980s that was formalized in 1990 when NEPPA utility members all signed a mutual aid agreement with each other.
Under the NEPPA Board of Directors, the NEPPA Mutual Aid Committee is comprised of utility operation volunteers that rise to action when events, like the recent microburst in Groton, happen.
The NEPPA territory, New England, is broken into five regions and each region is supported by two of these volunteers to answer the call when a public power utility needs help. Lawler is responsible for leading this highly successful committee that continually proves to be one of the most value-added programs that NEPPA offers its membership.
Groton Electric Light Department, which is located in the Northeast Massachusetts Region of NEPPA, called one of those volunteers Saturday morning in the wake of the severe wind event.
Dave Ketchen, the Assistant General Manager for the Littleton Electric Light and Water Departments, was the volunteer that took that call and quickly secured crews from several public power utilities to assist in electric restoration in Groton.
Ketchen continued his efforts and went to Groton himself to help manage these crews and ensure NEPPA’s Pandemic Checklist was being followed to keep public power lineworkers safe.
Kelly noted that mutual aid crews arrived by 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, May 16. “At that time, we were down to about 300 customers out, but those customers needed serious work done to get their power back,” Kelly pointed out. That day, “we had 20 guys working until about 8:00 p.m. when we sent them to get some sleep.”
Kelly said it was “incredibly important” for Groton to have crews from other utilities assisting with power restoration efforts through mutual aid. “We almost tripled our staff overnight and it still took three days” to complete restoration efforts. “It would have taken at least nine days to get the same amount of work done without mutual aid.”
Over the course of the day on Saturday, the restoration efforts brought power back to around 140 customers.
Monday, May 18, started with about 50 outages involving serious individual damage. Another 16-hour day by Groton Electric Light Department and the five systems offering mutual aid resulted in only one customer out at the end of the day.
Crews from the following public power utilities in Massachusetts assisted Groton with its power restoration efforts: The Danvers Electric Division, Groveland Municipal Light Department, Littleton Electric Light and Water Departments, Middleton Municipal Electric Department, and West Boylston Municipal Lighting Plant.
“What made this mutual aid response successful is same thing that makes every NEPPA mutual aid response a success, the people,” said Lawler, who also serves as general manager of Littleton Electric Light & Water Departments.
Lineworkers in New England “are an extremely proud, hardworking group of individuals and this is especially true when they work through a crisis. We are very proud of the training that NEPPA provides to public power lineworkers and operational supervisors, and this training (starting with the Apprentice Line School) prepares public power employees for events” like the recent event in Groton.
Lawler described how NEPPA, the mutual aid crews that assisted Groton and Groton utility crews worked to minimize potential exposure to COVID-19 during the power restoration activities.
All utilities involved were very cognizant of the mutual aid COVID safety precautions, he noted. Each crew member drove a separate vehicle throughout the duration of the restoration in order to keep themselves socially distanced from one another.
Each morning before work commenced, Groton Electric Light Department’s Gil Finch would screen all workers and ask if they felt sick or were showing any flu like symptoms.
Groton did not allow any mutual aid member to step foot inside of their facilities and all meetings were held outside in a large circle so that each worker could maintain social distancing. Mutual aid workers were given the option at night to drive home to sleep in the comfort and safety of their home or to sleep in a nearby hotel, which Groton secured one room per person, Lawler noted.
All meals were eaten outside and social distancing was practiced. Meals were “box-style” and were individual per person; there were no “self-serve” style meals or meal lines. Groton had cleaning supplies and sanitizer readily available during all meals.
Each crew brought their own mask and wore it during situations where social distancing was not easily attainable.
NEPPA’s Mutual Aid Checklist for the COVID-19 Pandemic
Lawler also provided details on the Mutual Aid Checklist for the COVID-19 Pandemic that it developed.
In the early stages of the pandemic, Lawler called a Mutual Aid Committee meeting. At this meeting, Scott Edwards, from Littleton Electric Light and Water Department, updated the Committee on the work that Alex Hofmann, Acting Vice President of Engineering Services at the American Public Power Association (APPA), Sam Rozenberg, Engineering Services Security Director at APPA, and the rest of the APPA Engineering team were doing to help their member systems.
NEPPA’s Mutual Aid Committee quickly realized that it needed to adopt and tailor the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) Pandemic Checklist into a document that fit for NEPPA.
“The Committee, along with NEPPA staff liaison Sarah Braese, spent countless hours developing our NEPPA Pandemic Checklist (Modified off of the ESCC Checklist), updated the NEPPA website with all Emergency Operation Center contact information and communication protocols for all New England states, and adopted a cost recovery tracking standard for crews that respond during a mutual aid event,” Lawler said.
There are 18 public power employees on the Mutual Aid Committee along with Braese that behind the scenes complete all of this necessary work that make these events successful, he said.
“Without these volunteers that passionately care for the cause, for each other, and for public power, none of this would happen,” Lawler said. “It is one of the greatest honors that I have had in my 20-year career, to serve alongside these unsung heroes of public power.”