Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Salt River Project taps local companies to fill shortage of protective masks

Faced with a pending shortage of personal protective equipment, Arizona public power utility Salt River Project decided to act.

Concerned about long lead times for equipment like face masks, the utility decided to “branch out and get creative,” Kate Kochenderfer, SRP’s senior director of supply chain transportation and flight services said. Salt River Project mobilized staff and reached out to local businesses to manufacture personal protective equipment to fill the gap.

The utility is working with several Arizona companies, in particular, American Upholstery, Brooklyn Bedding, Chandler Craft, and Runteez, with the goal of having enough masks to supply all of its on-site staff and field workers by April 17. SRP began the effort right after Easter.

Shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE, has become a major concern across the country as the nation battles the spread of the COVID-19. For Salt River Project, it was evident that the utility’s PPE supplies could soon be exhausted.

Despite their best efforts, utility employees can find it difficult at times to maintain social distancing directives. Customers sometimes approach workers and come closer than the recommended six feet. For other employees, such as those working on a faulty power line from a bucket truck, maintaining a safe distance is not possible.

SRP is now working with several local companies to ensure that it has enough masks to keep its employees and customers safe. SRP contracted with Runteez of Tempe, which usually makes custom printed t-shirts, to make surgical style masks. The Tempe company has already delivered 6,000 masks and another 11,000 were being delivered late last week (week of April 10), Steve Burnett, Runteez’ owner, said.

Burnett said his business has taken a big hit from the coronavirus quarantine restrictions in large part because so many large events and conferences, a mainstay of the business, have been cancelled. “It is a godsend that SRP was in the market,” Burnett said. He was able to hire back staff to make masks and has had a “banner week.” He also said he is grateful that his company is able to help the effort to fight against the virus.

Brooklyn Bedding is another Arizona company that was able to quickly adapt to the new COVID-19 environment. The Phoenix based company began transitioning portions of its factory to make masks and received its first order on April 4, and has been “humming ever since as employees have taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to meeting the high demand for face coverings,” Amy Dimond, the company’s director of brand marketing communications, said.

So far, the company has over 100,000 mask orders from a variety of industries, including utilities. SRP has contracted with Brooklyn Bedding to make 200 face masks a week.

Demand for masks has been so high that the company has hired back a second shift of employees. “It’s been gratifying to see our employees come together under these unique circumstances, and to be able to help so many—particularly within our home state of Arizona—get the personal protective equipment they need,” John Merwin, CEO and owner of Brooklyn Bedding, said.

SRP has also contracted with Chandler Craft, a local seamstress, to make fire retardant masks that linemen need as an alternative to flammable cloth masks when they are working on live wires.

SRP is also using its internal resources. The utility’s transportation department, in conjunction with Arizona State University, has converted its 3D printing equipment – usually used to make small parts needed for repairs – to print the plastic needed for N95 respirators.

In addition to face masks, Salt River Project also realized it was facing a shortage of hand sanitizer. In response, several departments within the utility banded together to acquire the materials needed to produce sanitizer on site, such as 1,100 small bottles from a local shop. SRP also reached out to utility counterparts and was able to obtain a formula from investor-owned Duke Energy, which shared their recipe for hand sanitizer.

By late March, SRP’s environmental services department was able to produce the first 200 bottles of SRP-certified hand sanitizers, delivering them to the company’s Tempe warehouse for distribution to field workers. SRP wants to have 1,500 bottles of hand sanitizer to fill the gap before its next regular shipment arrives.

The utility reached its goal to have masks for all its employees in the field, and now SRP has enough to begin distributing two masks to each employee. The SRP Supply Chain team is ensuring the company has enough masks and PPE in stock to support employees as they begin returning work, and in the event of a potential future wave of the COVID-19 virus.

“My team has done an amazing job coming up with innovative solutions in a trying time and we plan to be well prepared for any future crises,” Kochenderfer said.