Training Tools Spotlight: Safety During Storm Work

November 5, 2019

By Jim Engelke, General Foreman

I started working for WTS in 1979 during a recession, which meant if I wanted to work I had to be open to change. In 13 months, I moved to five different states; Iowa, Wisconsin, New Mexico, South Dakota and Minnesota. I have worked as a groundman, trimmer, foreman and am currently a GF. I even ran a spray crew for a while. One thing that’s helped me as a general foreman is all the different jobs I’ve had and all the equipment I’ve been around. My advice to crew members is to try to learn as much about as many things as you can. Having this knowledge helps you be open to change.

I was able to gain a lot of experience doing a variety of different things while moving around. Even though I’ve now been in the St. Paul, Minnesota, area for about 20 years, I get to travel to interesting places while doing storm restoration work.

So far in my career, I’ve worked restoration for five different hurricanes, four ice storms and a few fires in California. The work is difficult, but there’s nothing like the satisfaction that comes from helping people. Right after Hurricane Frances hit Florida in 2004, my crew and I were working all day in a neighborhood clearing vegetation and debris from the utility right-of-way (ROW). The utility linemen were working right behind us to rebuild the power lines. We finished as the sun went down and, once everybody was safe and clear of the wire, the linemen clicked in the final fuse, lighting the entire neighborhood. It was very satisfying seeing the impact my work had on restoring power to a neighborhood.

Storm restoration work is also a good opportunity to learn faster than you would on a normal jobsite. The first hurricane or storm you go into is always a learning process. Do not be afraid to ask questions and listen to the people around you.

Even the experienced storm restoration crew members can learn something new in every emergency situation. Everyone has knowledge and experience to share, so as long as you listen to other people’s ideas you can come up with a very good plan and gain new skills.

The more time you have to plan and get to a safe place before a storm hits, the better. However, you still need to be as close to the storm as possible without risking safety in order to be ready to respond. I once had to drive into the outer layer of Hurricane Irma, which hit during fall 2017, to get to a hotel. Our choice was either to drive into the hurricane or turn around and drive three states north to reach a hotel with vacancy.

There is a lot of planning and strategizing that goes into a successful restoration project. First, you have to know what work conditions to expect. Generally, with hurricanes and ice storms, there is debris and tree limbs down and the power lines are not active, so you have a pretty clear path to cut vegetation from. However, when working on fire restorations, the utility could have the power lines back up before you start working and hazardous trees could still be standing. The power’s back on, but the hazard trees still have to be mitigated, so you have to be very cautious and aware of the work you’re doing.

You also have to have a primary communications plan and a backup communications plan. In today’s world, technology and the internet provide a true advantage for storm work. However, if you depend on technology too much, it will be difficult to carry out a safe plan once the storm hits. In Texas, during restoration for Hurricane Ike in 2008, we had cell phones, but service wasn’t reliable. We ran into a problem because the backup batteries for the service towers were being slowly drained, and the towers lost their energy. We weren’t able to communicate with our phones at all, so we had to find different ways to communicate and check in with each other.

Since all the crews were going to work in different locations, we kept tabs on where each crew was going to be working each day. We also created rallying points and check in times, so we would know that everybody was safe and accounted for.

When WTS responded to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the check in/check out process was intensified. I arrived on the island at the end of February 2017 and spent 20 weeks cutting vines away from downed power lines and navigating though steep mountains and narrow, winding roads. Housing options were limited, so we stayed in rooms on a barge guarded by security. We were able to keep tabs on everyone’s whereabout because we had to check out when we left the barge and check in when we returned.

It was difficult being away from our families on an isolated island, but the Puerto Rican people were very friendly. In Puerto Rico, Sunday is reserved for family. However, it was very common for crew members to be invited into people’s homes for lunch on Sunday. Getting to know the people living on the island was the best part of being there.

Storm restoration can be very challenging and the only way to get through it successfully and safely is by taking care of each other. One of my favorite sayings is that, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” You have to get to the finish line, and the way to do that is by looking out for each other, having plans and back up plans, and staying safe.