Heavy rains and powerful winds make power outages a fact of life for many during winter months in the Pacific Northwest. The average power outage in 2018 kept Washington residents in the dark for about four hours and 10 minutes, according to the American Public Power Association. Clark Public Utilities customers, on the other hand, were without power for an average of just 35 minutes.
Such short outages are the result of a collaborative, highly disciplined and customer-focused approach to operating the local grid. But even with all those elements in place, outages would be much longer without the utility’s team of first responders: servicemen.
Serviceman are first on the scene when there is an outage or service interruption. Similar to how police and firefighters are the first responders to an emergency, utility servicemen are the first to respond to problems with the electric system. Whether it’s a blink in the afternoon or a full-blown outage in the middle of the night, they’re the utilities’ first line of defense.
Because outages are unpredictable and sporadic, servicemen are almost always a one-person crew with a work truck at the ready and situated in various parts of the county so they’re ready whenever a call comes in. That approach makes incident response times much shorter than having a multi-person crew first meet at the utility Operations Center to grab a truck before reporting to the outage site.
These journeyman line workers are ready to tackle just about anything that comes their way. Nine times out of 10, a serviceman’s knowhow, tools and bucket truck are all that’s needed to make a repair. But sometimes, such as during a major storm, a problem at a substation, or when equipment is damaged, the job is too large or complex for one person.
In those cases, servicemen take careful note of the damage done, the equipment that needs to be replaced and the tools that will be required and submit the information to utility dispatch. The dispatchers, who also work around the clock every day of the year, will then send out a line crew with the necessary equipment and materials to make the repairs.
Clark Public Utilities owns 6,600 miles of electric wire and 62,000 power poles across a 628-square mile county, all of which is maintained and repaired on a routine basis, but not every single wire is under its care.
When a customer reports an issue, a serviceman will come out to investigate. The utilities’ responsibility ends at the electric meter on the side of the customer’s home or other building.
Although the customer’s responsibility begins at the meter, servicemen, who want to be helpful when they can, realize many people don’t have the training to recognize a problem with their system.
When it’s clear the utilities’ equipment isn’t at fault, they’ll often do a quick assessment of the customer’s equipment to help identify the issue and walk them through what needs to be done or recommend calling a professional electrician. This can help speed up the repair process for customers, especially during a storm when many homes and businesses may be dealing with similar issues.
Servicemen are as busy as ever. The number of weather-driven outages spike in winter and that keeps servicemen and crews on their toes.
But utility crews are taking every precaution to protect their own health and the health of their colleagues and customers during the pandemic. Crews are traveling in single-occupancy vehicles, wearing masks, practicing social distancing and using lots of hand sanitizer. To those ends, they do everything they can to avoid going into a customer’s home or other buildings, unless it’s absolutely necessary, to preserve the ability for crews to continue responding to critical work.
To help, customers who experience an outage can report it to 360-992-8000 or online using the outage reporting tool on a computer or smartphone. It helps to be prepared with an outage kit in case it takes a bit of time to get the lights back on.
Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to email@example.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.