Public power utility Jonesboro City Water and Light (CWL) took several steps to minimize the threat of exposure to COVID-19 for utility crews during a recent mutual aid effort to restore power to customers in the wake of a tornado that hit Jonesboro, Arkansas, in March.
The tornado resulted in a loss of power to several critical facilities, as well as industrial, commercial and residential customers.
In total, Jonesboro City Water and Light estimates that 10-15% of its customers lost power. CWL has 38,196 electric meters.
Approximately 70 poles were broken with many spans of downed wire. Most of the damage was to the three-phase distribution system, although a short reach of transmission line (4 poles) was downed.
Jonesboro brought in a total of 60 additional workers and 34 pieces of additional equipment from 4 other municipal utilities and 2 contractors: Paragould Light Water and Cable (Paragould, AR), Conway Corporation (Conway, AR), North Little Rock Electric Department (North Little Rock, AR), West Memphis Utilities (West Memphis, AR), Grays Power Supply (contractor), and KCI (contractor).
Minimizing potential exposure to COVID-19
CWL took several steps to minimize the potential exposure to COVID-19 for workers helping with restoration efforts, which were detailed in a “lessons learned” document that it prepared.
With respect to personal protective equipment, workers utilized gloves, hand sanitizer, and sanitizing wipes frequently. Crews were instructed to wipe down their equipment at the beginning of their shift, at times when there was a change in equipment operator, at periodic intervals throughout the day, and at the end of their shift.
In an effort to avoid congregation of large groups, food was packaged in individual meal containers and was delivered to crews in the field.
Sanitizing wipes were placed at meal drop off points and workers were encouraged to maintain social distancing when getting their food and while eating.
Materials from a stock yard were delivered to mutual aid jobsites by CWL employees. The stock yard is arranged in such a manner that CWL’s employees could practice social distancing while gathering materials. Access to the warehouse was managed so that social distancing could be practiced there as well.
Social distancing was emphasized to all crews throughout the response. Additionally, for responding utilities that sent more than one work crew, care was taken to place the work crews at different work sites to mitigate the risk of virus spread among members of the same utility.
In addition, all workers were instructed to notify their foreman/crew leader of any signs or symptoms of personal illness so that they could be removed from the work environment and given appropriate medical attention. There were no reports of illness throughout the time of the mutual aid response.
CWL noted that no utilities were unwilling to help the utility due to COVID-19. However, some utilities were limited in the number of workers they could send due to the strain COVID-19 has placed on their business continuity plans.
In terms of what went well, CWL said “We were humbled by the response we received from our sister utilities and our contract forces. Additionally, our customers were very understanding, and our community was very supportive. We were very pleased to have power restored to all customers who were ready to receive it in just 3.5 days.”
CWL said that the overwhelming response to the event while dealing with the COVID-19 situation, “reaffirmed our appreciation of the utility workers’ servant spirit and sacrificial commitment to the customer and the mission.”
The utility noted that “crews were fighting two battles, one that could be seen and one that could not be seen. They rose to the occasion, as always, and figured out how to work in a protective pragmatic manner to restore critical utility service.”
CWL said that an event of this magnitude “took an entire community to deal with. Those impacted, the first responders (emergency management offices, law enforcement, fire departments, other utilities, etc.) and the volunteers all pulled together to get the community back to some form of normalcy.”
Meanwhile, CWL said that in terms of controllable variables, “we can’t think of anything that should have been done differently.”
CWL previously donated its supply of N95 masks to frontline local healthcare workers. “Even considering the storm, donating the masks/PPE to the healthcare workers was the right thing to do. The utility restored power as quickly as possible and returned to its work from home routine as possible.”