by David Callis, Vice President of Statewide Services for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association
I’ve mentioned before that cooperative employees take pride in their daily work of providing service to our members. They also take great pride in providing emergency assistance — in their hometowns or several states away.
The Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association helps our member co-ops coordinate disaster assistance both within the state and with cooperatives in other states. We regularly meet with representatives from other regions to develop plans on coping with disasters. We recently held a meeting where we reviewed the past year’s ice storms, tornadoes and floods.
Though we can’t predict when and where the next disaster will occur, we can ensure that we have accurate information on whom to contact in each state so we know what equipment is needed (or available) and which states are helping each other.
Over the years, great progress has been made in effectively dealing with disaster situations. One colleague from Oklahoma has developed a sophisticated index that helps predict where ice accumulations may occur and the severity of each. That index was created with the assistance of the National Weather Service and is used by several NWS locations in their forecasts. We use it in Tennessee to warn systems of impending danger. We can’t prevent the icing from occurring, but we can be better prepared for it.
Another cooperative in Louisiana is developing a program for scheduling and tracking line crews that may be traveling hundreds of miles to assist fellow co-ops. The database will help co-ops facing disasters know what crews and equipment are coming to assist them. Co-ops providing the assistance will know when their crews have safely arrived. Though restoring power following a disaster is the focal point of the effort, each event creates a mountain of paperwork. The Louisiana system, when fully implemented, will be invaluable in providing timely, accurate records, which are ultimately reviewed by federal entities that may reimburse much of the costs.
Both of those endeavors have originated from electric cooperatives because of a desire to meet the needs of the members — as safely, as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible. None of the individuals involved in the projects has any intention of selling the work to the highest bidder, even though both projects could be quite valuable within the electric utility industry. Instead, the only goal is to create a tool that will improve our disaster assistance to our co-op neighbors.
We never have difficulty in getting volunteers from Tennessee to help other states — we’ve earned our “Volunteer State” nickname many times. This past year, we gave and were on the receiving end of emergency assistance: Crews from North Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky and Alabama assisted co-ops in Tennessee; our crews, in turn, helped co-ops in hard-hit Alabama.
This past year, Alabama was easily the hardest-hit. By some counts, 67 tornadoes crisscrossed the state, destroying lines, poles, substations and, more importantly, churches, schools, hospitals and homes. The devastation was simply unbelievable in many areas. Families must cope with the loss of nearly 250 loved ones from the April storms.
Sharing experiences with other cooperatives is important because no two disaster-recovery efforts are the same. To be as prepared as we can to meet restoration challenges, our planning must continually evolve as we face new challenges.
April’s storms brought a new aspect to disaster assistance with which we do not often deal. A co-op colleague from Alabama told our emergency group that it was the first time that linemen, on site to repair lines, encountered the bodies of those killed by the storms. Even for workers who daily face danger, these men were shaken by the scope of the disaster. Men who work around high voltage that could easily injure or kill them were moved to tears.
My colleague said he “could see in their eyes” the emotional toll the tragedy took on the linemen. His concern was not only for those impacted directly by the storm but a fear that an emotionally upset worker could have a momentary lapse during work and suffer a severe injury. Many had to take time to regroup before they went back to the task at hand.
The crews completed their work safely — and in record time. Crews that went to Alabama will forever remember the devastation they witnessed. And their experiences will help them the next time they volunteer to help cooperatives in need.
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