Duke Energy has experienced its share of severe weather, but the utility and its industry peers are facing a new challenge as they prepare to respond to storms during the pandemic. Company leaders have spent the last four months adjusting their outage response plans to help protect employees and communities against COVID-19.
Duke Energy recently set up a staging site in Florida to practice and refine these new procedures that will help keep crews safe and healthy as they repair the grid after a major storm.
Staging sites house, feed and support crews during power restoration. Some are designed to accommodate hundreds or thousands of workers. Duke Energy’s storm team has been planning how to build and operate these sites while reducing the spread of the coronavirus.
At the Villages in Sumter County, staging experts Recovery Logistics set up sleeper and bathroom trailers, a food tent and truck fueling station so they and Duke Energy could test their plans and train employees to offer services like drive-thru temperature screenings, socially distanced catering services and enhanced sanitization.
Jason Cutliffe, Duke Energy Florida emergency preparedness lead, recognizes the challenges that the coronavirus brings, including the potential for delays in power restoration that could result if out-of-state crews and support resources can’t be staged for major storm response. His goal is to have the right number of people in place and trained when the next storm hits.
“There are new activities and precautions required with COVID-19,” Cutliffe said, “which means we need more people to work these staging sites and more steps just like we see in our daily life.”
Cutliffe and his emergency preparedness counterparts in the Midwest and Carolinas implemented protective measures early in the pandemic, including social distancing, updated safety signage on vehicles and around work zones, and face coverings when crews are not able to maintain adequate distance during operations. They also made crew briefings more efficient and eliminated most paper transfers to reduce potential exposures.
Once those plans were in place, the preparedness team shifted its focus to major storms. In April, storms knocked out power to nearly 1 million customers in the Carolinas and Midwest. The team had to quickly change their approach by managing the restoration remotely, housing crews in single-occupancy hotel rooms and enlisting runners to deliver meals.
The emergency preparedness leads learned a lot in that storm, but the staging site in Florida was another opportunity to validate their plans and share what they learned with other utilities.
Michael Mathews, who’s responsible for lodging, staging sites, vendor management and crew tracking during Duke Energy Florida storms, worked with Recovery Logistics to develop the test site at the Villages. The changes they implemented came from a series of meetings with logistics vendors and Duke Energy emergency preparedness employees. While the staging site was set up in Florida for practice, these changes can be used following a storm in any of Duke Energy's seven states.
Recovery Logistics, headquartered in North Carolina, also moved equipment to Florida in July that will stay at the Villages through hurricane season to more quickly set up a staging site after a storm.
Instead of the usual setup with one central food tent and rows of sleeper and shower trailers, the staging site was arranged in neighborhoods, or pods, where crews who travel and work together can stay together and limit interactions with others.
Each pod houses 128 people in trailers that sleep fewer people than they have in the past. Each trailer has 16 beds divided by a wall. Each side is served by its own air conditioning unit. The new showers have a similar setup. They have 10 showers per trailer – five on each side – and instead of one person going in as soon as one leaves, five people will go in, and when they’re done, staff will wipe down the surfaces and fog the shower with a disinfectant before the next group enters.
Each pod has its own dining area, too, where crews are served by staff in masks behind a clear screen. The test proved that managing food this way can offer a safe and efficient option for serving thousands of meals in addition to boxed meals.
They also tested a drive-thru temperature screening and a wellness survey for everyone who entered the site to ensure that the screenings wouldn’t back up traffic for hundreds of trucks.
“If we have a log jam of trucks trying to get to a staging site at the end of the day, that means their dinner is an hour late, they’re an hour late getting to bed, and they’re an hour late getting their breakfast the next morning,” Cutliffe said, “and now we’ve lost one of our 12 hours of daylight when they could be working.”
This planning and testing with vendors and other utilities will help avoid that. Cutliffe said if he could tell customers one thing, it would be to be prepared for this hurricane season because we don’t know what curveballs the pandemic will bring.
“But just like I asked them to prepare their families and their homes,” he said, “we’re doing the same thing here.”