Potomac Edison hazard center crackles with activity after storm

October 30, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • Jim Painter, center, manager of engineering services for Potomac Edison, worked Tuesday as a coordinator at the utility's hazard dispatch center on Bower Avenue in Halfway.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

WILLIAMSPORT — When Potomac Edison customers in the Tri-State area awoke Tuesday morning and found Superstorm Sandy had knocked power lines down across their vehicles or streets, their calls for assistance went to a hazard dispatch center at the utility’s Bower Avenue complex near Williamsport.

The windowless room is usually empty, but since Monday morning 31 dispatchers have been working one of two 16-hour shifts. They are handling electrical hazard reports from customers and 911 centers across Potomac Edison’s territory in Maryland and West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, and sister company West Penn Power’s territory in Fulton and Franklin counties in Pennsylvania, utility officials said.

Unlike the dispatch center in Greensburg, Pa., that dispatches line crews to repair outages, this dispatch center focuses on the utility’s first response to electrical hazards to protect the public from downed wires and assess what materials line crews will need to bring to the job, utility officials said.

The hazard dispatch center contains four clusters of four desks each and white boards on the walls listing hazard responders and district activity.

Several of the dispatchers use a laptop and two desktop monitors to keep track of electrical hazards in the field.

On Tuesday, one dispatcher talked on his headset about tree-trimmers being needed in one area. In another corner of the room, a dispatcher leaned over to another to discuss a situation for which they had both received calls.

Computer screens showed maps of the area and charts with notations such as “safety forces,” meaning that there were emergency service personnel such as firefighters or police at that site, said Jim Painter, an engineering services manager for PE.

Dispatchers will remain on duty in the room until there are no more hazards requiring a response, but PE spokesman Todd Meyers said he didn’t know how long that would take. Potomac Edison is the local operation of FirstEnergy.

Sometimes it can be hard for the hazard responders to get around due to road closures and flooding, utility officials said.

Washington County was “somewhat spared” when it came to outages, compared with much of the rest of FirstEnergy’s territory, Meyers said. Frederick County, Md., got hit by some of the higher winds from Superstorm Sandy and more than 90 percent of FirstEnergy’s 1 million customers in New Jersey had outages, he said.

PE is asking its customers to help by letting the utility know about outages or electrical hazards by calling 888-LIGHTSS or 888-544-4877, Meyers said.

When a hazard responder arrives at an electrical hazard, the responder checks to see if the downed wire is energized and cordons off the area with caution tape, Painter said.

If the wire is live, the responder will remain in the area until a repair crew arrives, Painter said. If the line is not active, the responder will move on to check the next call, he said.

The public might get concerned when they see a PE worker at the scene, but repairs are not being made, Meyers said.

Hazard responders don’t make repairs, but they investigate the situation and report what equipment will be needed, such as a new utility pole, or whether a tree-trimming crew is needed to handle a downed tree and improve access for a line crew, Painter said.

If a new pole is needed, the Greensburg dispatch center will see that note so the responding line crew will have what it needs, Painter said.

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