ROCHESTER — To venture a drastic understatement, after a severe weather event, public utilities get kind of busy for a while. And oftentimes the public does not fully appreciate the method behind their flurry of labor in the storm’s aftermath.
The companies start with the same overriding aim. “Our goal is to get the most people back on the main lines as soon as possible,” said Joe Koch, CEO of Fulton County REMC.
The cooperative serves Fulton County and parts of Pulaski, Cass, Marshall and Miami counties. It maintains 936 miles of power lines and eight substations for the 6,000 meters of its 4,700 members throughout a 600-square-mile area.
Post-storm remediation begins with a damage assessment, which could take 12 to 24 hours, according to Rick Banush, the REMC’s operations manager.
“We may get some damage reports from the guys driving in to work on the lines,” said Koch. “But you really don’t know the situation until you go out there.”
“How we try to assess damage initially is to separate our crews and send them out on every point of the compass, trying to get as much knowledge how bad it is as soon as we can,” said Banush.
The REMC, a not-for-profit enterprise, employs eight linemen, but if the situation warrants, can enlist help from other cooperatives around the state. A storm, however, may also preoccupy the entire workforces of nearby cooperatives, so the personnel and equipment may have to be gleaned from halfway across Indiana.
After the initial assessment, “the first thing we do is make sure there is power to the substations. It does no good putting lines up if we can’t put the power on. At that point we begin to troubleshoot the main circuit out of each substation in every direction.”
The work is strategic — and sometimes misunderstood.
“One of the misconceptions is that people see our trucks go by and they are out of power while everyone down the road has power,” said Banush. They feel ignored, “but we cannot spend time for one house at that time because our concern is to get the main line on. If they are off the main line, we cannot focus on them until later.”
“I think one of the things people don’t realize is these substations run and feed huge areas,” said Koch. “It may not look bad at their place when they are out of power, but the cause could be 10 or more miles away.”
Complicating work for the linemen are roads made inaccessible by felled trees or flooding or the darkness of night when they can safely work at only “half speed,” said Koch.
“Our main priority is the safety of our guys,” said Koch. “We have them working 16 hours and then we call them in and let them rest, then hit it for another 16 hours. The guys have families and we want to make sure they get home every day in the same condition they come in.”
One preventable impediment to the repair work is the presence of rubberneckers fascinated by the brutality of the storm damage. Banush urged residents to “stay home and don’t go sightseeing. It hinders our progress.”
Koch and Banush recommended a backup generator as an important component of pre-storm preparation. “In the country the water is on a pump which needs electricity,” said Koch.
He advised contacting the REMC for advice on hooking up the generator. If done incorrectly, “the electricity could back up and make the line hot.” That might not just ruin the generator, “it could kill one of our guys,” he warned.
Fulton County REMC maintains a 24-hour toll-free number for after hours and emergency calls: (800) 286-2265. The co-op also lists a variety of safety tips on its website, www.fcremc.coop.
Customers can download a SmartHub app to report outages, pay bills and view electric usage. See www.facebook.com/fultoncountyremc for guidance on obtaining the app.
For more information, call (574) 223-3156.