COMPANY:

Southside Electric Cooperative

OPERATION:

Rural electric cooperative that provides electrical services to 50,693 members Frank Harris, manager of public & member relations

Problem:

Crewe, VA-based Southside Electric Cooperative (SEC) sent four employees to Katrina-ravaged Natchitoche, LA, to help restore power to the area. SEC personnel formed two two-person crews and worked side-by-side with contractors and people from other utility cooperatives. In fact, SEC was one of about 1,000 cooperatives that sent people to the Gulf Coast region to help out.

With cellphone towers damaged in the hurricane, utility crews were presented with a unique challenge in coordinating their efforts, since communication is particularly critical when dealing with a item as dangerous as electricity.

“We paired contractors with our folks, [who led] them to the locations [that needed work],” explains Frank Harris, manager of public & member relations. “[Our crews] became the birddogs: they found the work that needed to be done and…relayed that information into the mainframe, dispatcher and operational manager.”

The need to coordinate and communicate repair efforts in a region where the communication infrastructure was badly damaged became immediately apparent. “Telephones and cellphones are good, but in that situation the cellphone towers were gone,” Harris recalls.

Solution:

SEC has almost 100 vehicles equipped with the Qualcomm OmniTRACS mobile communication solution, a satellite-based system with positioning tools. “The only way we could communicate was through the Qualcomm system,” Harris says. “It was invaluable. Thanks to the systems our vehicles were equipped with, we in turn were able to track our people and were in constant communication.

“The key was being able to transmit information and remain in contact with operations,” Harris continues. “For example, our crews could say they needed to go home if they wanted to. [Operations] needed to know how the work was progressing in the field. Our crews were a bit apprehensive [about going to the Gulf Coast] initially, but we provided training for linemen and they took to it like a dog does to water.

“We've got a mobile radio system and in most instances you could use that voice mobile system,” Harris says. “But [the Qualcomm system] gave us an added advantage. [Our crews] could immediately log into the mainframe and tell us that a system had been restored in real-time.

In addition, the system enabled workers to turn in their hours in real-time at the main offices at Crewe. It also meant a reduction in the amount of paperwork the workers had to complete. Paperwork that could easily get lost, Harris points out.

“The important thing for us is that we were able to go down and utilize whatever expertise and technology we had to play a small part in this restoration effort,” Harris says. “The Qualcomm system was an invaluable tool. It showed what this technology can do and that utilities have some pretty sophisticated tools at their disposal.”