During normal business hours, United Illuminating (UI) functions as a public utility, powering the homes and businesses of the greater Bridgeport-New Haven area.
But when severe weather is on the horizon, the company shifts into an organization perhaps best described as paramilitary, often with all hands on deck, many in roles they might not usually fill.
Recently, UI hosted Storm Media Day to explain operations during a behind-the-scenes tour of the company’s Orange headquarters.
Safety is paramount in any response, Manager of Safety and Technician Training Walter Booker said. After several recent storms, lingering high winds kept linemen from going aloft to repair damaged lines.
Booker also had a message for those who encounter downed lines. “If you see a wire down, don’t get anywhere close to it,” he said.
UI covers a 17-town region that includes Shelton.
In a UI room that would serve as a command center during an emergency, television screens monitored weather conditions and news channels.
A disturbance thousands of miles to the south or west could be the next one to bring devastation to Connecticut, and leave UI customers without power.
On the day of the tour, a tropical depression was on the radar of Pat Lynch, a storm engineer for UI.
“We keep our eyes on the Caribbean every day in the summer,” Lynch said. They also check twice daily with the weather department at Western Connecticut State University for more local forecasts.
If ominous clouds are on the horizon, Lynch and his team will set in place the motion of holding workers over, calling in crews from other states and activating — in part or entirely — UI’s emergency plan.
When a crisis occurs, roles are spelled out in procedural manuals as thick as encyclopedias.
Charts define who answers to whom, following chains of command established using the Incident Command System, established after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to create a universal language and command structure to ease collaboration among agencies during a regional or national emergency.
“It’s very descriptive,” said Jim Cole, director of transmission and distribution operations and maintenance.
Those teams meet and prepare throughout the year, reviewing the plan and analyzing how it was followed in the latest emergency, Cole said.
The plan also sets out how, and when, to respond to outages. “Any life-threatening situation is the utmost priority,” Cole said.
The next priority, Cole said, is working with municipalities to open roads. If wires are near downed trees, local public works crews cannot clear the hazards until UI linemen ensure that electricity is off.
Following criticism from politicians after recent storms, UI has established a system that assigns liaisons to each city or town.
The liaisons work with towns on lists of 10 locations given priority for restoration of power, such as shelters or hospitals. Bridgeport and New Haven each are given 14 priority sites.
Should the damage be too much for UI to handle on its own, utilities across the country have mutual aid agreements that call for sharing of crews and trucks in the event of a massive disaster, such as hurricanes Irene and Sandy. Contractors also are hired.
A massive paved area at UI’s headquarters in Orange contains poles, transformers, wires and other equipment needed to repair and rebuild the lines in order to restore electrical service, Supply Chain Director Mike Garzone explained as he walked the media through a meticulously organized warehouse.
UI has its own generators to keep its emergency operations working, and is home to a seven-day fuel supply for vehicles used by its own crews and those that respond from afar.
During outages, customers rely on representatives who answer the telephone for information. Vice President of Customer Care Bill Reis said UI is adding an automated system so customers are not kept hanging when they call.
During Sandy, dozens of UI employees assigned to field calls during storms slept in cots to help handle the influx of calls, Reis said. “Our employees did not want to go home,” he said.
John Kovach is editorial director of Hersam Acorn Newspapers based in Shelton, including the Shelton Herald.