Restoring Utilities After Disasters

Contractors Face Unique Challenges In This Critical Work
By Jeff Griffin, Senior Editor | September 2013, Vol. 68 No. 9

Immediately following major disasters, utility crews are busy working to restore vital services.

Winter or summer, seasonal storms disrupt power and communications leaving anywhere from a few thousand to several hundred thousand people without vital services. Loss of power also can affect water and sanitary sewer services, making life difficult for area residents and those in the area to restore services.

Risks inherent to utility construction are well known and utilities and contractors have safety procedures in place to address them, but restoring services in disaster areas brings serious additional hazards that require special attention.

Bill Mattiford, vice president - safety for utility contractor Henkels & McCoy, presented a session focused on working safely while restoring services after disasters as part of the Damage Prevention and Safety Track at the 2013 UCT Show. This article is based on information from that presentation with additional details provided by Mattiford.

Emergency utility crews often are on the scene almost as quickly as first responders whose task is caring for storm victims. Downed power and communications lines and poles may be the most obvious utility damage, but buried lines and components also risk storm damage, such as floodwaters filling underground vaults, tunnels and other structures and destroying components.

As residents wait, many times impatiently, for services to be restored, they usually notice that many of the work crews are in vehicles owned by utility providers and contractors from hundreds of miles away.

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Helping hand

“Utility companies take a ‘mutual aid’ approach in times of trouble,” said Mattiford. “They help each other out by sending crews and equipment and, if possible, they release contractors working on regular projects to help with recovery operations.”

Restoring services following disasters is a large portion of Henkels & McCoy’s work, said Mattiford. The company’s storm response team coordinates personnel and equipment from its three regional headquarter areas -- eastern, central and western -- with support from other regions as necessary.

“Our crews come with trucks and equipment to do whatever is necessary,” Mattiford continued. “Affected utilities provide cable, poles, structures and other materials. We work under the control of the utility, who provides housing, parking and dispatch areas.”