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Today is October 29, 2020

Co-ops and mutual aid during COVD-19

By Derrill Holly and Steven Ward

When major storms occur, electric cooperatives have always depended upon other co-ops in the network to help handle widespread outages. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed that — but does present logistical challenges for mutual aid efforts.

“There have been numerous discussions about transportation, lodging, crew assignments, meal preparation and distribution and increasing reliance upon crews from neighboring co-ops,” said Martha Duggan, NRECA’s senior director of regulatory affairs.

Duggan said co-op officials from statewide associations began working on approaches to mutual aid that addressed public health concerns when the pandemic took hold earlier this year.

“When feasible, visiting personnel are being housed in individual rooms, and clean linens are distributed at a central location in the hotel to reduce the need for hotel staff to visit rooms,” Duggan said.

As Hurricane Laura approached the Louisiana coastline on August 26, the electric cooperative family was in full preparation mode to respond to the needs of sister systems in that area. Cooperatives from around the country organized employees and equipment for deployment as soon as the Louisiana systems were prepared to accommodate.

“The logistics of this process are frankly hard to overstate. Then, there is COVID-19. Our well-known nemesis did nothing to simplify the process of mutual aid. It created even more logistical hurdles that had to be addressed both in preparation for our arrival and in the sustainability of the ongoing effort, said Gerald Gordon, vice president of safety and loss control for the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi.

“Mississippi provided 100-150 men with various types of equipment. The normal calculation of housing needed went out the window and had to be adjusted up to double the traditional size. Dealing with social distancing added modifications to the way the men were housed, fed, and even the way they would load trucks at the beginning of the day. At the end of the day, cooperative employees do what needs to be done,” Gordon said.

“It is a major cornerstone in the sense of pride that linemen feel when they deploy to help our brothers and sisters in need. COVID-19 is a hurdle but just one more thing that will be overcome when we, once again, bring the power.”

Pandemic precautions have had some impact on the general pace of restoration following major outages. Work briefings are being conducted at job sites, fueling and yard pickups are being scheduled to maintain social distancing, and box meal distributions have replaced group feedings.

“When you have to disperse crews and handle most communications electronically, it can slow the pace of restoration, but it helps reduce the risks,” Gordon said.

Co-ops in Mississippi took that into consideration when they worked to complete restoration after more than 40 tornadoes strafed the state over Easter weekend in April.

When remnants of Hurricane Isaias moved through Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative’s service territory, tropical-storm-force winds knocked out power to about 4,600 of the New Jersey co-op’s members, triggering a mutual aid response that involved crews from five co-ops in Pennsylvania.

“Our people stayed socially distant from mutual aid crews brought in from other jurisdictions,” said Claudia Raffay, SREC’s director of marketing and member services. “Each crew was assigned a point of contact who shadowed them on every work assignment and helped guide them around our territory.

“That person might have been a staker, not involved in actual restoration work, who kept in communication with visiting crews to make sure they had the equipment and materials they needed.”

Raffay said the social distancing and crew sequestration measures that the co-op has employed throughout the pandemic have been the basis for hosting its mutual aid response crews.

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