As media outlets began to report the possible intensity and path of Hurricane Florence, Pioneer linemen, linemen trainees, and supervisors all started to consider the opportunity to provide mutual aid to cooperatives in the path of the storm.
Pioneer Director of Operations and Safety Nick Berger kept an eye on his email, anticipating a message from Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives Director of Safety and Loss Control Dwight Miller requesting mutual aid for the storms about to wreck the southeast coast — more specifically, North and South Carolina. As the southern cooperatives waited and watched to determine where Florence would make its mark, Ohio cooperatives began “rallying the troops” to ensure they had crews ready and willing if or when the time came.
“Our first step is to assess our own situation — to ensure we have enough men available to cover any situation that would arise at Pioneer,” says Berger. “When we’re confident in that, we request men for mutual aid.”
Being well-informed ahead of the storm helps each lineman determine whether he is able to help with the mutual aid effort more quickly, according to Berger.
“Having a few days’ notice allows our guys to go home and have conversations with their wives, make arrangements, and feel comfortable leaving for an extended period of time,” says Berger.
Each of Pioneer’s linemen and linemen trainees are listed on a call-out list developed for mutual aid situations, with the individual at the top of the list receiving the first opportunity to go and continuing down that list until the number of individuals requested is reached.
“The out-of-territory list is strictly volunteer — we make sure that everyone has their fair share of opportunities,” says Berger.
By Wednesday, Sept. 12, the Ohio statewide office and Miller had received their first official requests for mutual aid from South River Electric Membership Corporation (EMC) in Dunn, North Carolina and Lumbee River EMC in Red Springs, North Carolina. The two cooperative headquarters were separated by just 54 miles.
Pioneer was able to provide one construction crew, made up of four men, as well as a supervisor to help with the restoration effort at South River. The men included Terry Linger, John Holcomb, A.J. Montgomery, Brad Harrison, and Bryan Zirkle. For Montgomery and Harrison, this was their first opportunity to provide mutual aid.
In addition to manpower, Pioneer also provided a digger derrick and a bucket truck.
The men departed Pioneer’s Piqua office on Sept. 14, stopping midway in Wytheville, Virginia, where they met up with other Ohio cooperatives and convoyed the remainder of the trip to South River EMC in Dunn, North Carolina.
Upon arrival, the men were briefed on safety and expectations. With Hurricane Florence still causing destruction in the area, Pioneer crews, alongside Consolidated Cooperative, another Ohio co-op, patrolled lines and assessed damage throughout the territory.
South River EMC is made up of 43,000 members, and the storm left more than 30,000 members out at its peak.
Their first 16-hour shift began Sunday at 5 a.m. One of the biggest hurdles was navigation. With flooding prominent throughout the area, crews were forced to reroute, or in some cases, take a completely different route home than how they arrived at certain locations.
“The work and the terrain were very similar to what we’re used to here in Ohio,” says Lineman Trainee A.J. Montgomery. “We saw a lot of trees on the lines and flooding — flooding was one of our biggest challenges, the first few days especially.”
Led by a South River employee — often referred to as a birddog — Pioneer, Consolidated, and a tree crew began restoration work. A majority of the work consisted of clearing and reconstructing lines. South River experienced very few broken poles throughout the storm.
Out-of-state crews, including Pioneer, were able to stay at a hotel just five minutes from the cooperative. South River provided breakfast and dinner at the cooperative, as well as a sack lunch to get through the day. Members who were waiting patiently for work to be completed and their power to be restored were also very quick to offer crews water and snacks.
“The hospitality was great, and I can’t say enough about their members,” says Montgomery. “They were out there with water and snacks, even though they were the victims of the storm. We greatly appreciated everything they offered.”
In any mutual aid situation, if the duration of restoral looks to be longer than eight to 10 days, Pioneer would consider rotating crews. Fortunately, thanks to the organization of South River and amount of help from out-of-state crews, that wasn’t necessary this time. The men returned safely on Sept. 19, just five days after they departed Pioneer.