When severe weather strikes and outages occur, our lineworkers are on the front lines. But there’s also a full team of employees working behind the scenes to support the effort and get power back on. Our team shifts into a different gear and takes on new roles when a large storm blows in. This is all part of our Incident Command System mode — aka ICS, the federally approved emergency response framework used by first responders to coordinate effectively and efficiently.
Here’s a look at our behind-the-scenes warriors.
Managing Resources & Getting Crews on the Ground
AEP Ohio’s Grid Modernization team – which is typically engulfed in technology and innovation projects like smart meters – tackles a more low-tech, but no less important, challenge during storms: arranging lodging and meals for our crews on the ground. For example, AEP Ohio frontline workers required about 400 hotel rooms during the recent storm restoration effort in southern Ohio. Purchasing the rooms, assigning them to employees and making changes on the fly is a full-time job that involves the entire Grid Mod team.
Scott Osterholt, who heads the Grid Modernization group, assumes command of the logistics. The Logistics team coordinates with other groups at AEP to tackle responsibilities beyond lodging, including:
- Securing materials: making sure the supply of poles, wire, transformers and other equipment remain stocked
- Staging: setting up base camps with restrooms and parking for an influx of trucks
- Important safety logistics: clearing snow from facilities and ordering plenty of salt and ice melt
Maintaining The Fleet
Lineworkers are only as effective as the trucks they use for travel, which is why proper upkeep of our trucks takes on critical importance during a storm. Employees from AEP’s fleet department across the state converge on hard-hit areas to provide extra support. Storms also bring more damage to vehicles including falling trees, off-road driving, broken wipers and more. Fleet personnel must get trucks in tiptop shape at the end of each day so they’re ready to go again first thing the next morning.
Fleet teams (working longer days to handle the increased community need) also provide onsite support when necessary, properly attaching snow chains and making urgent on-the-spot repairs when a return to the service center isn’t possible.
The engineers and technicians who normally design the facilities needed to provide electrical service switch roles: assessing storm damage and determining the materials and resources needed to make repairs. Technicians from across the state travel to the heart of the storm ground zero to provide support. Like our line crews they put in long days to manage the huge amount of labor required to report and prioritize restoration work.
Poles, wires, transformers, crossarms, insulators – these materials are direly needed to replace all the equipment damaged during a storm. Storeroom employees – who typically support general maintenance and planned work – switch to on-demand responsiveness handling the immediate needs that pour in to replace downed equipment. Local storeroom staffing is typically small, with each employee working extended shifts to support line crews.
The Distribution Dispatching Center (DDC) is already the nerve center for tracking outages and routing crews to the scene. In the thick of a storm, it’s a hive of activity with every employee answering constantly ringing phones. On a typical day AEP Ohio logs around 250 outages a day across Ohio; during this week’s ice storm that number jumped to over 200 just for South Point. To accommodate the surge, dispatchers often work six or seven days in a row and their normal shifts get longer.
Planned line maintenance is canceled as restoration becomes a priority. Dispatchers play an important role in using modeling software to direct crews to areas where repair work will have the greatest benefit to customers. They keep maps in sync so customers know their restoration status and crews aren’t assigned to an outage that’s already been resolved. Dispatchers also handle calls from 911 operators who call to relay downed power lines reported by customers. Lastly, the DDC lends a hand to fellow AEP dispatching centers when other regions across our service territory suffer severe weather.
Assessing The Damage
Employees in our meter group assume an entirely different role during storm duty. Meter electricians join technicians to form two-person teams patrolling our lines. As storm assessors, they investigate major issues on our circuits and, as these are identified and routed appropriately, move on to individual customer outages.
Meter specialists become critical liaisons for contract crews – “bird dogs” who know the area best. They guide crews to job sites, transport materials and serve as a communications go-between with the Distribution Dispatching Center using their company radios and mapping resources.
Keeping Customers Informed
On a typical day, AEP’s digital customer care team fields about 200 inquiries from across AEP’s service territory – as much as 500 if it’s especially busy. During the recent storms that number has skyrocketed to 14,000 inquiries. To handle the surge, the nine-member team has been working into the night for almost a week, taking breaks only to sleep and eat. They respond to customer questions and pass along outage restoration updates, all while handling the normal questions about billing, payment extensions and general account information.
Call Center Support
When a major storm hits, all six of AEP’s call centers band together to handle an increase in customer calls. On a typical day, AEP fields about 42,000 calls a day; on Feb. 17 that many had been answered by 9 a.m. Call center representatives have been working seven days a week, and each shift has been extended an extra two hours. Though these employees have been working remotely for almost a year to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, they aren’t immune to the weather-related outages affecting our customers – some call center representatives in the other centers have been without power themselves and impassable roads prevented them from driving to another location to work.
These are just some of the groups stepping up during storm restoration. Not to be forgotten are the families of these employees, who go without their significant others as employees leave home and spend extended periods of time away to get the power flowing again for our customers.
As Thomas Edison once said, “What you are will show in what you do.” And when severe weather hits, these are the people who do whatever it takes to get power flowing again.