WASHINGTON – When the lights go out, most power customers have one thing on their minds: getting the lights back on.
Pepco has come under fire in recent years from enraged customers who complain of frequent outages, even on blue sky days, and from legislators who felt the heat from angry constituents. The Maryland Public Service Commission also fined Pepco $1 million in December for poor performance, and Gov. Martin O’Malley often has referred to “having my foot firmly up Pepco’s backside” when talking about getting the power back on after storms.
But what about the “boots on the ground” – the men and women responsible for power restoration? For the first time, Pepco granted a long-standing request and allowed local media access to the crews as they made repairs after a storm.
WTOP’s Kate Ryan met up Tuesday with a four-man crew tasked with repairing a downed wire in Silver Spring, Md.
An old, massive tree brought down the wire behind the Glenmont Forest Apartment complex. Justin Bowley, who led the crew, said the team would have to use what’s commonly referred to as a “backyard bucket” to get to the wire and make repairs. The smaller equipment was needed because the worksite was on a hilly, muddy piece of property, thick with trees. Bowley explained that the smaller bucket vehicle was made specifically for access to tight spaces with a lot of obstacles.
The first order of business was briefing the team on the safety considerations they’d take untangling the wire and making repairs. Then, team member Elliott Sohns would go up in a bucket to neutralize the lines.
“You’ve got 7,000 volts in your hand,” Bowley said.
Next, it was time to deploy the backyard bucket truck and make the repair. Sohns was again in the bucket, and the ground crew – Reggie Ross and Robert Mitchell – were supporting him, making sure the smaller bucket vehicle found a stable footing on the ground. They also passed up equipment to Sohns, who at times appeared to be juggling. Bowley explained between coiling lines, manipulating the bucket and splicing the wires, “You never have enough hands up there.”
The work was slow. Every action has to be checked and re-checked. A bad repair can lead to a dangerous electrical failure. And it could be deadly for Bowley’s crew.
“Back when distribution was first developed, one in four linemen died on the job,” he said. “That would mean one of us wouldn’t be going home.”
Bowley said that statistic was true when hard hats were made out of leather, before rubberized protective gear was worn by crews.
Still, safety is paramount, “We all want to get home to our families,” he said.
But the job is something Bowley said his crew takes great pride in. And there are times when his team will get a heartfelt thanks from relieved customers.
“That makes you feel real good. We really appreciate it. We work hard, we risk our lives up there,” he said.
But Bowley said that’s borne of a commitment to getting the job done and making sure the customer’s power is restored.