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Utility Fleets to the Rescue in Puerto Rico

Written by Sean M. Lyden on . Posted in .

This story hasn’t been getting a lot of attention in the national press, but there has been a massive mobilization effort by utilities across the U.S. to send thousands of lineworkers, trucks and pieces of heavy equipment to help restore power to Puerto Rico, where many residents have suffered without electricity since Hurricane Maria pummeled the island last fall.

In December, several electric companies began mobilizing crews at the request of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), in a coordinated effort with the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the American Public Power Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, deploying nearly 1,500 additional restoration workers and support personnel to the island as of press time.

One of those utilities is Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E), based in Oklahoma City, which is assigned to the Arecibo region on the northwest side of the island, along with Dallas-based Oncor and Houston-based CenterPoint Energy.

On January 18, about 60 of OG&E’s trademark orange trucks arrived at the port in Ponce, Puerto Rico, taking about two weeks to complete the 1,900-mile trek from Lake Charles, Louisiana. The plan is for OG&E’s first wave of 50 crew members to work for 20 days and then relieve those workers by sending a second wave of 50 to continue work for at least another 20 days.

Although 60 vehicles is a small percentage of OG&E’s nearly 2,000 fleet assets, a mobilization effort that involves sending that many pieces of equipment to an island a couple thousand miles away is no small task.

So, what exactly is a fleet department’s role in coordinating an overseas mobilization effort like this one? What are the key factors fleet managers need to think through to ensure things go as smoothly as possible for the crews?

UFP recently spoke with Paul Jefferson, fleet manager at OG&E, to get a glimpse into the Puerto Rico storm-response process and any lessons he has learned along the way. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

UFP: When you received word that OG&E was going to participate in the Puerto Rico assistance effort, what were some of the initial steps from there? How did you determine the number of fleet assets to send?

Paul Jefferson: [EEI] asked for 50 linemen from us, and we needed to also send a couple mechanics, safety personnel and supervisors – so about 60 trucks total. Once OG&E’s [transmission and distribution] management figured out which crews were going, they selected the trucks to bring. Then my role was to review the list and approve or substitute units so we don’t send any equipment that’s not up to the job. 

There’s also a lot that goes into getting the barge ready to haul the vehicles. In the area [of Puerto Rico] we’re working in, we’ve teamed up with Oncor and CenterPoint. And CenterPoint has a lot of experience with barges, so they took the lead with the barge. But we needed to pull together quite a bit of information to give to the barge company – truck weight, size, height and so forth – for all the assets we were sending over.

Then you have insurance, where we needed to state the value of the vehicles so that our corporate risk department could get coverage in case something happens to the vehicles on the barge on the way over.

When you were evaluating the initial list of vehicles, what were some of the things you were looking for to help you determine whether to approve an asset or substitute it with something else?  

The biggest thing for me is that I didn’t want us sending over our oldest trucks or spare trucks or stuff like that. I wanted to make sure all the vehicles were good to go, and I ended up substituting a couple of them.

But even with the best equipment, things break down. How do you manage maintenance, parts inventory and repairs on vehicles that are operating on an island a couple thousand miles away? 

We’re primarily an International truck fleet, so I got online to see if there were International dealerships that we could use near us in Puerto Rico. And we found a dealership where we could use our fleet charge account, which was good because we get national pricing.

In terms of parts, we took quite a few of what we thought would be high-moving items with us on the trucks. And we’ll use those first. If we need any parts that we don’t have, we’ll then go to the dealer.

But one challenge is that we run Goodyear Tires but [Goodyear] doesn’t have a commercial tire center over there. They just have automotive stuff.

How did you and your team address the tire situation?

We ramped up the number of tires we took with us, putting them on our flatbed trucks and mechanics’ trucks for shipping on the barge, and then storing them at our staging area in Puerto Rico. Worst-case scenario, we may have to put on a different brand tire.

What has been the impact on your operations?

One impact on the company is that while the trucks were being shipped for two to three weeks, some of the linemen didn’t have a truck. So, they had to share equipment with each other during that time.

How does the fleet department go about planning for a large-scale mutual-assistance effort like this one – especially when it’s overseas?

A lot of it comes from our knowledge from past storms. We’ve worked ice storms and tornadoes and hurricanes on mutual assistance before. So, our team got together and talked about what we might need to come up with for a list. We then reached out to our vendors, telling them what we wanted and when we needed those things by. And they palletized the cargo for us, sent it to our garage and put it on our trucks.

And we have a document for storm response that we follow. We have a list of volunteers, mechanics who want to work on these mutual-assistance efforts. We have a list of standard truck parts and tires we take on mutual-assistance storms. And we have a list of phone numbers of our vendors. So, for example, Goodyear Tires has a special phone number for utility companies working on mutual assistance so that when you have a tire problem, there’s a phone number that puts you at the front of the list. And, for our International trucks, we have a fleet charge account that is part of the package that mechanics take with them that has our fleet charge number there, so if they’re at an unfamiliar dealership, they can still use our account.

Was there anything unique that wasn’t on your typical storm-response list because this was for Puerto Rico?

One thing we did is that we got with Altec and Terex to add Spanish versions to our warning decals on our bucket and line trucks, which typically are only in English.

Was that something PREPA requested or required?

No, we just did that on our own. We felt like it was the safe thing to do.

What advice do you have for other utility fleet managers on how they can best prepare and execute their storm-response plans?

I think the main thing is to make sure you have a base plan in place. It may change, but at least you have a starting point to follow. I never dreamed we’d be going to Puerto Rico two years ago. So, try to think outside the box of any place you might be going and think through plans accordingly.