The Electrical Worker online
October 2013


Utility Companies Recruit Wiremen for Emergency Response Teams

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A massive storm whips through a region. The local utility company brings in pole inspectors, engineers or other managerial personnel from out of town to assess damage and dispatch linemen and tree trimmers to restore power.

These "bird doggers," as they are known in the field, have no knowledge of the roads and landscape. They can't devise detours to evade downed trees or buildings to rapidly guide equipment to hospitals and other critical locations.

As the widespread power outage drags on, a barrage of public criticism slams the utility and even the IBEW local union representing men and women who are putting their lives on the line to restore power.

This scenario — too often repeated as more frequent storms torment North America — has forced leaders on both sides to ask, "Can't we do better?"

In New Jersey, Michigan and Connecticut, IBEW local unions and their employers have decisively answered that question with innovative thinking and action.

They are training Brotherhood wiremen — many of them unemployed — as members of emergency response teams to not only assess storm damage, but to assist utility customers — fixing damaged connections to their homes, hooking up generators, etc.

These skilled union bird doggers are part of the community. They know the terrain. They have a personal interest in quick recovery from storms.

In arduous battles against ice storms, derechos and hurricanes, the developing model of cooperation between IBEW's construction and utility branches marks "a glowing combination of union solidarity and community engagement," says International President Edwin D. Hill.

Jersey Central Power and Light/Paterson Local 102

JCP&L, a FirstEnergy subsidiary, garnered national attention in August after announcing the formation of the JCP&L-IBEW Local 102 Emergency Response Team.

"In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, it occurred to us that the IBEW was not being utilized to its full potential," Local 102 Business Manager Patrick Delle Cava told the Daily Record after the announcement.

Delle Cava's local is contributing to an IBEW-produced ad detailing the skill and courage of New Jersey members in power restoration efforts after Sandy — to be released on the first anniversary of the storm in late October. He initiated discussions with JCP&L's president to found the emergency response crew.

The team of inside electricians will supplement the company's IBEW-organized line crews, which include locals 327 (Dover), 1289 (Lakewood), 1298 (Morristown) and 1303 (Keyport). A formalized training program began in September. It is expected that 350 inside and outside members of Local 102 will attend four hours of training in the classroom and four in the field.

"This partnership will serve to supplement JCP&L's dedicated work force. Ultimately, our customers will benefit from this unique emergency response team because the more personnel we have working during a storm, the faster we can get the lights back on," says JCP&L President Jim Fakult.

Delle Cava says a chance meeting with JCP&L President Don Lynch at a New Jersey Business and Industry breakfast set the basis for a new approach to storm damage assessment. Delle Cava approached Lynch over the company's plan to use nonunion electricians to erect four buildings.

"I told Lynch that we wanted to develop a stronger relationship," says Delle Cava. At the business manager's suggestion, Lynch sent a few managers to visit Local 102's apprenticeship training center. Impressed with the depth and quality of training, the company gave the contract for the four buildings to Local 102.

As construction on the buildings began, says Delle Cava, "I broached the subject of using electricians for damage assessment." JCP&L and Local 102 held several meetings, some attended by corporate FirstEnergy managers from Ohio, to finalize the storm partnership agreement.

Emergency response training is popular with members, says Delle Cava. "The 50-member classes fill up on the first day," he says. The parties plan to conduct train-the-trainer classes to empower Local 102 instructors to take over most of the training functions.

"This is a great deal for both sides," says Delle Cava. The local union agreed that emergency responders will be paid 75 percent of their time-and-a-half rate when working on the team, close to what they would earn on a construction site, he says. And JCP&L is now considering conducting some of its own in-house training at the Local 102 apprenticeship center.

Delle Cava, who is getting calls from other IBEW locals inquiring about the emergency response team, says the local union's proactive approach to storm restoration is part of a plan to market the union's skills that is paying off in other sectors.

"I think we need to listen to the words of [hockey superstar] Wayne Gretsky," says Delle Cava. "We need to 'put ourselves where the puck is going.' That means positioning ourselves to where the market will be in five or 10 years."

DTE/Detroit Local 58

In partnership with DTE Energy, Detroit Local 58 has established a "storm lab" at its apprenticeship training center. The lab will contain different types of meter enclosures and other typical equipment confronted by DTE after emergencies.

Inside electricians — who will be assigned to secondary power restoration after emergencies — are attending three days of classes preparing them to make triage assessments of damage they will encounter while entering residences after storms. They will learn DTE's protocols to restore residential service and learn the proper terminologies to report problems outside of their areas of expertise to the utility. Training will include first aid and CPR segments.

"Our goal is to have a list of 200 storm-trained members who can not only assist on local power outages, but also go anywhere in the country for secondary power restoration in the event of a catastrophe," says Local 58 Business Manager Mike Richard. The local is on schedule to train all 200 members in one month. Three apprenticeship instructors have already completed train-the-trainer classes.

During past storms, DTE would accept bids for secondary storm restoration from two or three different inside electrical contractors, causing overlap and confusion, says Richard.

The utility initiated a bid process to establish an exclusive contractor. The bid was won by signatory contractor J. Ranck, who worked with DTE and Local 58 planning the storm lab.

"We're ready to roll," says Richard.

Scott Rausch, a 30-year Local 58 member, performed secondary storm restoration 20 years ago for DTE before the company changed its approach to storms. "I'm looking forward to the classes," he says. "I think DTE came to the conclusion that using linemen to do secondary restoration was a waste of resources that took linemen away from what they do best."

Rausch traveled to New York and New Jersey to help restore power for three different utility companies after Superstorm Sandy. "I enjoy this work because you are working with end users, helping neighbors out," says Rausch. "They are so appreciative. There's instant gratification when you can help a family whose power has been out for several days."

"I enjoy the out-of-the-norm jobs," says Rausch, who has worked in auto plants, steel mills and at Detroit's Cobo Convention Center. While wary of hidden hazards like energized fencing or the danger of looking for wires in the dark, Rausch says he appreciates the camaraderie of crews focused on restoring power. "When you're on storm projects, it's a big team," he says. "You watch your partner's back. Everyone works together like on no other job. 'No' is not part of the vocabulary when someone asks for a part or a hand."

Connecticut Light and Power/IBEW Inside Locals

Relationship building between Connecticut Light and Power, a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities, and IBEW utility branch locals 420 (Waterbury) and 457 (Meriden) had run a difficult course, strained by conflicts over staffing that gained broad media coverage after devastating storms in 2011 and 2012.

In the wake of a 2011 storm, the opportunity for cooperation between the utility locals, inside locals in the state and CL&P reached a tipping point.

The company had contracted with a few non-signatory contractors on secondary restoration and was dissatisfied with the quality of their work. Frank Cirillo, Local 420 business manager, suggested that the company use signatory contractors. CL&P contacted IBEW Second District Vice President Frank Carroll who contacted inside locals, dispatching dozens of wiremen to help.

In Connecticut, when utility services lines to residences are disrupted, repairs are the responsibility of individual homeowners. "During power outages, residents see a utility truck on their street and they expect power to be restored quickly," says Carroll. After they find out that the linemen are solely assigned to restoring transmission lines, they start screaming and writing letters."

While this situation improved after the 2011 storms, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, CL&P once again turned to some non-signatory contractors. Carroll set up a meeting with CL&P President Bill Herdegen III and suggested that CL&P utilize inside wiremen to assist linemen on secondary power restoration. Herdegen agreed, quickly scheduled safety training for wiremen and supplied gloves.

"The cooperation between utility and inside locals and CL&P was phenomenal," says Carroll. Up to 300 wiremen wearing IBEW shirts were greeted as heroes as they restored power to residences. Carroll says the goodwill generated during the storm cleanup has paid dividends all the way up to the governor's office, where IBEW skills and training and community engagement have enjoyed renewed respect.

All of the wiremen assigned to storm restoration, says Carroll, have been trained by members in outside construction. "That's what brotherhood is all about," he says. Wiremen have included members from Connecticut locals 35 (Hartford) 90 (New Haven) and 488 (Bridgeport) as well as Massachusetts locals 103 (Boston) and 223 (Brockton).

"Our members don't do any pole climbing. They assist the linemen," says Carroll. CL&P's respect for the union's work has spread as other employers, seeing the effectiveness of IBEW electricians during storms, have called them back for more work. And jurisdictional issues between utility and construction locals are being resolved in the interests of the surrounding communities.

Carroll and Herdegen, who recently shared in a panel at a meeting of the IBEW's national utility partnership, the Labor Management Public Affairs Committee (LAMPAC), are finalizing a comprehensive agreement that will deal with all storm work. "We had folks from all over the country asking about our work," says Carroll.

"The agreement will truly be a first in the Second District," says Carroll. "We have had parts of the work before, but this new pact will be great for Connecticut."


Massive storms like Hurricane Sandy, which wreaked havoc throughout the Northeast last year, are becoming more frequent, and pushing utilities to tap into the ranks of IBEW wiremen to help with emergency response.

Photo used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr user Wally Gobetz



'Using linemen to do secondary restoration after storms takes them away from what they do best,' says Scott Rausch, a 30-year Detroit Local 58 journeyman wireman who traveled east to help restore power after Superstorm Sandy.