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Working As A Family, Focusing On Safety, And Putting The Lights Back On [Video]

As line workers from as near as Vermont and as far away as Alaska got off the buses Friday morning and wearily shuffled their way towards breakfast, they got some grim news. One of their brothers was killed while working on Sandy recovery efforts.

 

As hundreds of line workers got off charter buses in the pre-dawn darkness in a Hammonasset Beach State Park beach parking lot Friday, none of the park's natural beauty, or damage from Superstorm Sandy, was visible.

The yellow-vested men, and a few women, initially weary and then increasingly alert, shuffled into the long and growing line in front of a tent where the scent of bacon wafted out into the parking lot. Only the electric and tree trucks, the mess tent, and row upon row upon row of transformers stood out under the intense white artificial light.

As they slowly made their way into the tent, they were greeted by the friendly but firm presence of Ed Pagani, a safety supervisor, who was handing out the daily NU Storm Safety Message for Day Five.

More than 7,000 storm responders, more than 800 utility poles, more than 78 miles of overhead electrical cable

It was clear that, as he worked the crowd at Hammonasset--which was about 600 early in the week and rapidly growing towards 1,000 workers--he was determined not to see any of his own lost.

The 1,000 men and women at Hammonasset were among more than 7,000 storm responders who were called in from across the country to help Connecticut replace more than 800 utility poles and restring more than 78 miles of overhead electrical cable. In some areas along the shoreline, the entire electrical system had to be rebuilt. CL&P officials have said that the destruction along some areas of the Connecticut coastline and Southwest towns is "on par with the epic destruction in New York and New Jersey."

It was a massive amount of work, some of it mundane, some of it dramatic, all of it dangerous. And so the emphasis on safety by Pagani, who stopped to talk with many of the men while handing out the safety update to every one of the workers on line Friday morning.

Significant safety incidents, generator backfeed, and grim news

The update let workers know about "significant safety incidents" in the past 24 hours (a near miss by a contractor's digger derrick after a brake failure and a traffic accident involving a contractor's trimming truck). There was a report about a second occurrence of a customer's generator backfeeding a circuit during restoration efforts in New Hampshire.

Then, the workers came to some grim news.

Non-NU-Industry Fatality: Southwestern Ontario experienced a fatality on their system Wednesday, October 31, 2012, when a veteran hydro worker was electrocuted while restoring downed power lines caused by Sandy. The lineworker worked for Bluewater Power. This incident is under investigation.

A lineman for more than 20 years ...

The Canadian Press reports that 45-year-old Mike Leach "was a lineman for more than 20 years and was ... using a bucket truck to repair fallen power lines" after the city where he was working was plunged into darkness following Sandy, like so many towns on the Connecticut shoreline.

Gail Scobee, from Scobee Powerline in Cameron, MO, was reading the safety update as he made his way toward the breakfast tent, which had a huge sign on the front, "Fight the 5 Leading Causes of Serious Injuries and Death in the Electric Industry: Always follow procedures; Always observe minimum approach distances; Always insulate and/or isolate; Always ground properly; Always use personal protective equipment." 

"Safety is a big priority for CL&P," he said, looking down at the white NU Storm Safety Message, when he asked how he was doing. "They have a safety briefing every morning, they keep all the safety information right in front of us, probably better than anybody I've worked for."

Experts with different policies and procedures

Scobee got the call Friday, left North Kansas at 5:30 a.m. Sunday and arrived to help in Connecticut at 11:30 p.m. Sunday prior to the height of the storm on the shoreline Monday into Tuesday. He was one of the early arrivals, with many to follow after him.

Scobee said many of the workers from different parts of the country, all expert in their respective fields, had different procedures and policies. He said he appreciates people like Pagani working hard to implement and educate workers about standards that apply in Connecticut. 

Ernie Ackermann, a journeyman lineman from Wasilla, Alaska, agreed.

Alaska?

"Your last line of defense"

"No lie," he said, while holding a two mega-packs of Diet Pepsi and several box lunches for his crew. "Pull back my vest and you'll see."

Beneath his bright yellow reflective safety vest, his bright red sweatshirt bore the logo identifying him as a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1547 which, as its website says, "proudly serves 586,000 square miles on top of the world." In addition to getting used to the smaller scope of Connecticut while working here, Ackermann had to constantly use properly-rated, thick-rubber insulating gloves.

"PPE [personal protection equipment] is your last line of defense," the daily safety messages concludes. "Always wear FR [fire rated] clothing, properly rated rubber gloves, hard hat, safety glasses, and safety footwear. Utilize hot sticks (if required) when handling any conductors." Hot sticks are insulated fiberglass poles used by line workers, designed to protect the workers from electrical shock as they work on live wires.

Hot-sticks and rubber gloves

In addition, workers are required to use three-part communication during all switching activities, provide complete equipment and nomenclature information when communicating switching information, and follow a list of other specific rules while working long shifts, day after day.

In Alaska, on the other hand, a lineman, when working on voltages below 4500 between phase, has the option of deciding whether to use hot-sticks or rubber gloves.

"Connecticut is a rubber glove state," Ackermann said. "Alaska is a hot-stick state." Not a problem, he said, adding that crews from around the country were making similar adjustments while working for CL&P following Sandy.

Breakfast, a short moment of sight-seeing, then on to work

As daylight crept up over the horizon, the hordes of men, and the one woman I saw, finished their choice of breakfast offerings that included cheese omelets, biscuits with sausage gravy ("the southern guys like 'em" a food service worker said), Canadian bacon, regular bacon, a side of salsa, danish and a huge vat of largely untouched maple oatmeal.

They headed towards their meetings, and then towards their trucks. A few of the tree crews, no doubt testing their equipment, ascended into growing sunlight and took a few quick snapshots of their home away from home, with their family below, for their family back home. A few moments later, they were back on the ground and heading out.

Pagani says, yes, the workers at Hammonasset that day all had two families. He said before leaving home, often in states or towns that are also threatened by violent weather, he and the other workers had to get their generators set up, remind their spouses how to use them, and then hope that they would be able to make do while they were away.

After Connecticut, headed to the hell that New York and New Jersey have become

During last year's big storm, Pagani was away from home more than 11 days. After he leaves the CL&P site at Hammonasset, he is scheduled to descend into the hell that New York City and New Jersey have become following Sandy, where the vast majority of the United States' more than 110 fatalities have occurred.

The US deaths are in addition to more than 69 in the Caribbean, and that was as of this weekend. They are still pulling bodies out of the rubble. The toll is rising.

Pagani is a gas expert, in addition to a safety expert. He expects both areas of expertise will come in handy while in New York and New Jersey.

"What you see is ... a brotherhood. Like firemen."

Get the job done while staying safe. It always comes back to that.

"These guys have got to leave their families and then emergencies come up and they hear about them," he said. "Maybe we lose a brother during the storm. These tragedies affect each and every line worker, but life goes on. You've got to worry about your families at home, you've got to worry about the family you work with."

Whether from fatigue or a desire to rush to get the job done, "I don't want to see shortcuts. What you see is sort of more a brotherhood. Like firemen. You have got to watch out for everyone."

How's Madison? The shoreline? The response ... dead silence.

Pagani paused while he finished his early breakfast of coffee and a cigarette.

"You know, I see my co-workers more than my regular family," he said. "I bet a lot of these guys are like that."

As he left to attend to his other duties and meetings, a group of line workers were asked how they were liking Madison and the shoreline.

Their response? Dead silence.

Throwing coffee? Swearing at workers? A story about a gun?

Perhaps that was the most diplomatic response they could provide. One reader on Facebook, who lives in Madison, reported witnessing someone in town throwing coffee at and swearing at line workers, telling them to hurry up.

And there was a story making the rounds at the staging area at Hammonasset Friday morning, that someone had pulled a gun on a line worker who had approached a house to let the homeowner know they were working outside. The people talking about the incident did not know if the report came from Madison, from the shoreline, from Connecticut, or from elsewhere.

Madison town officials, the CL&P official in Madison, and Madison Police Chief Jack Drumm said there was not a report of such an incident in Madison. And they all said they had not heard of any reports nearby. Still, the story was a concern for some of the workers, and a source of outrage for some of their support staff Friday morning.

"Polite goes away and people just want lights"

Jock Mulkey and Joey Munch from Pearl River, LA said "yes ma'am" when asked if they wanted to say anything to residents of the shoreline and Madison.

Up to day three, they said, people were great.

Day four? "Not so polite."

Day five?

"It's going to get to the point where polite goes away and people just want lights," said Munch. Munch asked that we all be patient, that they will get the lights back on for us. They then headed out to do what they could do that day to make sure that happens.

By the time Mulkey, Munch--and their family for the week--got off-shift Friday night and piled back onto the buses to head for the hotels, the sun would be setting, or perhaps already done for the day, too.


"Nobody works harder"

Maybe some of them will get to see a Hammonasset sunset, perhaps from a high-up bucket of one of those tree trucks.

Tom Mc Caughey, a bus driver, and some of his fellow bus drivers were among the last to eat Friday morning. They let the line workers go first.

"Nobody likes to lose power," McCaughey said, in his Rhode Island accent, piling food on his plate in the mess tent. " You hear the politicians grand-standing, OK? But nobody works harder than these guys. Nobody."

James Hellman November 04, 2012 at 01:07 PM
Thank you Pem and Beth. Let's find a way to take back our power and detach from the grid. Say thank you and goodbye to linesmen, management alike one last time. eliminate mis-understanding, mis-management, mis-communication from our humble town's disaster play-book.
Pem McNerney (Editor) November 04, 2012 at 01:27 PM
Fine, but we need to do so in a way that still allows me to use my hair dryer. =)
M. C. November 04, 2012 at 02:09 PM
Know one is criticizing the linemen...They do a great job, and just do what they are told. Hats off to them...all of them. This storm was only a fraction of the damage caused by hurricane Irene, but the power is still taking just as long to come on, and CL&P was supposedly more prepared for this storm. Heads really need to roll in CL&P Mgmt this time or this problem will never be fixed, and the incompetence at CL&P and UI will continue.
David P Leventhal November 04, 2012 at 02:57 PM
Pem, Thank you for issuing the clarification. The line workers need to know the the residents of Madison are with them and admire their courage/dedication. After Irene, the people of CT. were assured that investment would be made in response capacity, training, and infrastructure. That being said, simply bringing in large numbers of line workers is not response capacity. The competence of the supervisors and CL&P leadership is what is being called into question. The line workers as you've noted have come from far and wide and execute their skills with distinction. It is the responsibility of the management line at the utility that needs the training in logistics, dispatch, operations management, CT. geography, and utility line schematics. They are the ones giving the orders, and the line crews suffer the results. Pickett's ill-fated Charge is named for the incompetent General, not the brave infantrymen who perished. David Leventhal Madison, CT.
Matt November 04, 2012 at 03:19 PM
James Hellman, Turning this natural disaster into a political platform for your fossil fuels opinion is also completely inappropriate.
Mark Jones November 04, 2012 at 04:30 PM
Excellent story title: Focusing On Safety. With that said, it's my opinion that someone really needs to educate the Madison Police Chief about proper standardized electrical safety procedure protocol before he is allowed to place the lives of his officers in anymore unnecessary danger, cutting tree limbs entangled in high power lines and who knows what else. It was a nice political photo oppurtunity for him but he needs to comprehend that safety regulations and requirements apply to everyone, not just " The other guy". There is a big difference between making a split second error in judgement vs continually doing things that are just plain stupid when it relates to common sense safety.The loose cannon approach is how people get hurt or killed. I have to ask what his boss, the Madison Police Chairman has been doing all this time to stop this reckless conduct. Hard for him to say he didn't know when it's published in the media. His silence and inaction is the same as an endorsement to continue bad behavior as it applies to safety rules. Not good. The trained and certified electrical professionals all know that to fight the five leading causes of serious injuries and death in the electric industry, 1. Always follow procedures; 2. Always observe minimum approach distances; 3. Always insulate and/or isolate; 4. Always ground properly; 5. Always use personal protective equipment. The Madison Police Chief is 0 for 5.
Fred November 04, 2012 at 06:22 PM
@ Matt -- I disagree. At the moment, priority should be given to assisting those who remain in need, but a post-storm discussion regarding how problems could have been prevented and how response could be improved is helpful and appropriate.
Foxglove & Madison Cheese November 04, 2012 at 09:37 PM
Even though we didn't get power back at our house till late last night (Saturday), I am really amazed by these linesmen. I saw the tremendous amount of tree and wire damage that they have had to deal with, they must be exhausted. They deserve our heartfelt thanks.
Pem McNerney (Editor) November 05, 2012 at 12:32 AM
@ MJ ... again, some context on the decision of the police chief to cut the limbs dangling into the street, as shown in the video. There were families in town hall expressing concern about the safety danger (and good for them ... the three children watching will forever remember that mom cared enough to demand action from town hall). The limbs were hanging directly into the street. If that tree had fallen on a family traveling down that road? I can imagine the howling then about town officials who did nothing. Town officials asked at the 9 a.m. meeting for a line worker to go out with town crews. The CL&P rep was not able to provide one, or say whether one could be provided. So the police and public works crew took a calculated risk (the chief had conferred with the CL&P rep immediately before going out ... the main risk likely was from generator feedback) and got the job done with the equipment they had immediately available. And, yes, someone should make sure the police have whatever PPE necessary. loose cannon = total overstatement and taking actions out of context, imo. and you know, since I've already said this, it wasn't a photo op. I headed down there to take pictures of the tree after hearing from the moms in town hall, not because anyone set up a photo op.
Mark Jones November 05, 2012 at 01:12 AM
Good point Die Hard about laws suits from avoidable injuries that probably violate Federal O.S.H.A. Safety Regulations. Even if you take the electricity safety issue out of the equation altogether, you still end up with a town employee in a loader bucket (designed for dirt and debris, not humans) not wearing any safety harness above the ground. People who support town employees breaking all the safety rules are either ignorant or blinded by local politics. If you aren't educated in basic safety, then common sense should prevail.
Mark Jones November 05, 2012 at 01:39 AM
To Die Hard. You are in the opinion of the majority. Do you agree that: One lane of the road was open and passable on a dead end side street when the Chief arrived and he considered that and emergency situation that couldn't wait to be addressed in a proper safe manner? Then he leaves the shorter less noticeable tree positioned even more precariously on the wires and more likely to fall on a car if the wind picked up. Not a very critical thinker. The term reprimand should jump out at you rather than praise.
Die Hard November 05, 2012 at 01:41 AM
I agree 100 %. Because you used your real name, I agree with you 125%
Mom of 2 teens November 05, 2012 at 01:59 AM
This discussion is getting off task. Mr Leventhal had many good points. CL&P was supposed to be prepared and just imagine if Sandy had brought the wrath predicted The mismanagement by CL&P needs to be addressed immediately. However, citizens must direct their anger correctly and effectively. Write letters to the heads of CL&P, your congressman and senators. But please offer thanks to the men who have traveled far to help us out. We received power just this afternoon from Maine central power. I and my children stopped and thanked them for coming to help, offered to go get the dunkin donuts and I've already sent an email to the parent company praising their workers and stating our appreciation. Treat others as you would like to be treated.
Mark Jones November 05, 2012 at 02:35 AM
To Die Hard: Laugh out Loud. You got that right. I don't think it matters who you are, what matters is what you have to say and why. If your comments happen to differ from that of others, debate is a healthy process. I think the Patch itself should remain neutral as an unbiased media outlet. In my opinion, the Madison Police boss works off the fire, ready, aim theme. Jump off the bridge and then figure out what's down there and where you'll land after the fact. If you dare point out the obvious about the article he's featured in, you either get criticized or told you are getting off track. Can't have a valid opinion based on facts I guess.
Mom of 2 teens November 05, 2012 at 02:55 AM
@Mark- were you asked to go out and cut down trees yourself? Was is the best example to set by the Chief doing so? Maybe not. Sometimes you take a calculated risk. Since we were trapped on our cul de sac by a felled tree and no one came to our aid, a neighbor checked the wires and then a group went to work with chain saws to clear enough of the tree that people could leave or help get in if there was a medical emergency. By the way, I've already received a reply from Maine Central Power thanking me for taking the time to write and that they would be sure it was passed along to the linemen. How about we all send a nice note to the workers who helped us and letters of disappointment regarding their lack of crisis coordination and management to CL&P executives. We will surely be needing help from outside CL&P again; possibly even this week.
Pem McNerney (Editor) November 05, 2012 at 04:02 AM
Great idea. If you have the address handy, let us know. If not, I bet I can dig them up. Thanks.
Mark Jones November 05, 2012 at 11:14 AM
When the roll model chief leads by (poor) example, yes, it's implied to go out and trim trees yourself. Look at me, do as I do. An unnecessary calculated risk of killing yourself and others around you is unacceptable. Glad to hear your apparent layman neighbor " checked the wires". Just courious, what class Master Electrical License does he or she hold and from what state? What linemen job do the have regarding those unique testing skills? Did he or she have the specialized tools to "insure" the wires were safe? Fuse breaker pole? Ground stick? Volt meter? Amp meter? What? Did they travel a mile in all directions after testing to insure there were no other wires crossed? Are you aware that even a low voltage phone or cable wire can kill you if it's touching a high voltage/amperage wire someplace down the street. Just because you beat the odds and lucked out this time doesn't make it okay. There is no substitute for safety. Stupid hurts, stupid kills.
Pem McNerney (Editor) November 05, 2012 at 12:23 PM
The fact remains that there were about a thousand or more line workers on the shoreline Friday morning, all of them working, and not one was made available to Madison to work with our crews to clear danger areas like this that day. The CL&P manager/representative at Madison town hall was not even able to say when one might be made available. I heard her say that to town emergency management officials. I saw her in a meeting with the chief, although I don't know what was said at that meeting. And when town residents called CL&P to express concern about the trees tangled in wires, CL&P told them it was the town's responsibility. Those residents came down to town hall with their children demanding that something be done. I would have done the same if it were my street. The town took responsibility, at some risk to its own employees, to reduce the risk for town residents living on that street. The tree was dangling into the street. The job got done, along with others that had been left too long on the to-do list by CL&P management, and thankfully no one was hurt. There were no major injuries or deaths due to the storm in Madison. That doesn't invalidate any of the good points made about safety, but to go on and on and on about stupid this and stupid that sounds like Monday morning quarterbacking from someone who wasn't even on the field.
Mark Jones November 05, 2012 at 12:40 PM
I give up. I guess a few people think these safety procedures are over rated and the linemen look silly with those protective hard hats and safety harnesses. Safety Around Power Lines and tree limbs: Stay away from downed or sagging power lines, and do not touch anything that is on or near a power line (i.e. trees or tree limbs, loaders). Do not attempt to trim any trees on or near power lines. Treat all downed or sagging wires as if they are energized and keep a safe distance. All tree trimming or removal work within ten feet of a power line must be done by trained and experienced line-clearance tree trimmers. A second experienced tree trimmer is required within normal voice communication range. Tree trimmers must be aware of and maintain the proper minimum approach distances when working around power lines. The utility company must de-energizing, ground or shield power lines before any tree limb on them can be safety removed. Safety is a core value which is why the power companies utilize specially trained and equipped line-clearing professionals to perform this work. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Agency) • Use personal protective equipment such as hard hats recommended in the equipment manufacturer’s operating manual. OSHA additionally has strict standards concerning fall protection. Anyone working more than four feet off the ground must be use fall protection equipment. Fall protection equipment is critical to saving lives and preventing serious injuries.
Pem McNerney (Editor) November 05, 2012 at 12:49 PM
You're right about the importance of safety.
Mark Jones November 05, 2012 at 12:49 PM
Playing Russian Roulette with peoples lives isn't stupid? Sorry for my error in thinking so. Statistically speaking, those who may think they are invincible will eventually run out of luck. When it occurs, I'll sadly be back to remind you: (I told you so) Bye, bye till then.
Jose Cruz November 05, 2012 at 01:20 PM
You are all wrong and missing the point. It is all about the double edged sword of diversifying. Since the cops don't like the job the power company or tree trimmers were doing, they just winged it by going out and buying a chain saw to do it themselves. The same goes for the power company, tree trimmer employees and anyone else who may not like the job the cops are doing, so they should go out and buy some guns to do that job themselves. It should all make sense now.
Die Hard November 05, 2012 at 02:18 PM
Your comment would be more credible if you used your real name
Jose Cruz November 06, 2012 at 03:03 AM
This story is about "Focusing On Safety" to deal with the hurricane aftermath. I think in terms of safety, most everyone did their own job to the best of their ability safely, the one they know how to do safely and are trained to do safely and equipped to do safely. The after incident briefing should identify any problems and determine the solutions for a better and safer response next time. It was one weak town supervisor that veered of the safety path because they thought they could get away with it, without accountability or sanction. Praising their bad behavior only adds fuel to the fire that increases the odds of someone getting injured or killed during future events. Then we all loose in one way or another. A supervisor who breaks the rules, looses all credibility by promoting the "Do as I say, not as I do" style of management. That ideology is a recipe for disaster and will bring any agency down.
Kelly P November 06, 2012 at 05:02 PM
Funny that JC should criticize "do as I say and not as I do"... when it comes to his stated religious convictions on other posts, he is very willing to hold out the importance of religion and lay on criticisms of nonbelievers. As a sanctimonious believer, you should try for consistency and ignore those religious leaders who so frequently do the opposite of what they tell others to do. But eventually, you'd run out of leaders to pay attention to and come, at some point, to the recognition that religions are a front to manipulate people, no better than any other flawed types of human institutions that end up with the same result. See you on the next thread...
Beth Anderson November 06, 2012 at 11:32 PM
I think Kelly sneezed. God bless you!l
Beth Anderson November 07, 2012 at 01:52 AM
@ Politiko..... This country was based on: In God We Trust and One Nation Under God and God Bless America. Sorry if you are offended by that. I do see your point and agree that no leaders police to priests should do the opposite of what they tell their flock to do.
Kelly P November 07, 2012 at 05:27 PM
In god we trust was only added to currency in the 1950s - a response to distinguish the US from the godless soviets. It really isn't a founding principle.
Kelly P November 07, 2012 at 05:30 PM
Oh, and one nation under god wasn't added to the pledge of allegiance until the 1950s as well http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pledge_of_Allegiance
Beth Anderson November 07, 2012 at 09:11 PM
The United States of America, a nation founded on religion / God and as you pointed out, enhanced and strengthen in that concept since. Thanks for the very informative information. Your a saint !

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