As hundreds of line workers got off charter buses in the pre-dawn darkness in a Hammonasset Beach State Park beach parking lot Friday, none of the park's natural beauty, or damage from Superstorm Sandy, was visible.
The yellow-vested men, and a few women, initially weary and then increasingly alert, shuffled into the long and growing line in front of a tent where the scent of bacon wafted out into the parking lot. Only the electric and tree trucks, the mess tent, and row upon row upon row of transformers stood out under the intense white artificial light.
As they slowly made their way into the tent, they were greeted by the friendly but firm presence of Ed Pagani, a safety supervisor, who was handing out the daily NU Storm Safety Message for Day Five.
More than 7,000 storm responders, more than 800 utility poles, more than 78 miles of overhead electrical cable
It was clear that, as he worked the crowd at Hammonasset--which was about 600 early in the week and rapidly growing towards 1,000 workers--he was determined not to see any of his own lost.
The 1,000 men and women at Hammonasset were among more than 7,000 storm responders who were called in from across the country to help Connecticut replace more than 800 utility poles and restring more than 78 miles of overhead electrical cable. In some areas along the shoreline, the entire electrical system had to be rebuilt. CL&P officials have said that the destruction along some areas of the Connecticut coastline and Southwest towns is "on par with the epic destruction in New York and New Jersey."
It was a massive amount of work, some of it mundane, some of it dramatic, all of it dangerous. And so the emphasis on safety by Pagani, who stopped to talk with many of the men while handing out the safety update to every one of the workers on line Friday morning.
Significant safety incidents, generator backfeed, and grim news
The update let workers know about "significant safety incidents" in the past 24 hours (a near miss by a contractor's digger derrick after a brake failure and a traffic accident involving a contractor's trimming truck). There was a report about a second occurrence of a customer's generator backfeeding a circuit during restoration efforts in New Hampshire.
Then, the workers came to some grim news.
Non-NU-Industry Fatality: Southwestern Ontario experienced a fatality on their system Wednesday, October 31, 2012, when a veteran hydro worker was electrocuted while restoring downed power lines caused by Sandy. The lineworker worked for Bluewater Power. This incident is under investigation.
A lineman for more than 20 years ...
The Canadian Press reports that 45-year-old Mike Leach "was a lineman for more than 20 years and was ... using a bucket truck to repair fallen power lines" after the city where he was working was plunged into darkness following Sandy, like so many towns on the Connecticut shoreline.
Gail Scobee, from Scobee Powerline in Cameron, MO, was reading the safety update as he made his way toward the breakfast tent, which had a huge sign on the front, "Fight the 5 Leading Causes of Serious Injuries and Death in the Electric Industry: Always follow procedures; Always observe minimum approach distances; Always insulate and/or isolate; Always ground properly; Always use personal protective equipment."
"Safety is a big priority for CL&P," he said, looking down at the white NU Storm Safety Message, when he asked how he was doing. "They have a safety briefing every morning, they keep all the safety information right in front of us, probably better than anybody I've worked for."
Experts with different policies and procedures
Scobee got the call Friday, left North Kansas at 5:30 a.m. Sunday and arrived to help in Connecticut at 11:30 p.m. Sunday prior to the height of the storm on the shoreline Monday into Tuesday. He was one of the early arrivals, with many to follow after him.
Scobee said many of the workers from different parts of the country, all expert in their respective fields, had different procedures and policies. He said he appreciates people like Pagani working hard to implement and educate workers about standards that apply in Connecticut.
Ernie Ackermann, a journeyman lineman from Wasilla, Alaska, agreed.
"Your last line of defense"
"No lie," he said, while holding a two mega-packs of Diet Pepsi and several box lunches for his crew. "Pull back my vest and you'll see."
Beneath his bright yellow reflective safety vest, his bright red sweatshirt bore the logo identifying him as a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1547 which, as its website says, "proudly serves 586,000 square miles on top of the world." In addition to getting used to the smaller scope of Connecticut while working here, Ackermann had to constantly use properly-rated, thick-rubber insulating gloves.
"PPE [personal protection equipment] is your last line of defense," the daily safety messages concludes. "Always wear FR [fire rated] clothing, properly rated rubber gloves, hard hat, safety glasses, and safety footwear. Utilize hot sticks (if required) when handling any conductors." Hot sticks are insulated fiberglass poles used by line workers, designed to protect the workers from electrical shock as they work on live wires.
Hot-sticks and rubber gloves
In addition, workers are required to use three-part communication during all switching activities, provide complete equipment and nomenclature information when communicating switching information, and follow a list of other specific rules while working long shifts, day after day.
In Alaska, on the other hand, a lineman, when working on voltages below 4500 between phase, has the option of deciding whether to use hot-sticks or rubber gloves.
"Connecticut is a rubber glove state," Ackermann said. "Alaska is a hot-stick state." Not a problem, he said, adding that crews from around the country were making similar adjustments while working for CL&P following Sandy.
Breakfast, a short moment of sight-seeing, then on to work
As daylight crept up over the horizon, the hordes of men, and the one woman I saw, finished their choice of breakfast offerings that included cheese omelets, biscuits with sausage gravy ("the southern guys like 'em" a food service worker said), Canadian bacon, regular bacon, a side of salsa, danish and a huge vat of largely untouched maple oatmeal.
They headed towards their meetings, and then towards their trucks. A few of the tree crews, no doubt testing their equipment, ascended into growing sunlight and took a few quick snapshots of their home away from home, with their family below, for their family back home. A few moments later, they were back on the ground and heading out.
Pagani says, yes, the workers at Hammonasset that day all had two families. He said before leaving home, often in states or towns that are also threatened by violent weather, he and the other workers had to get their generators set up, remind their spouses how to use them, and then hope that they would be able to make do while they were away.
After Connecticut, headed to the hell that New York and New Jersey have become
During last year's big storm, Pagani was away from home more than 11 days. After he leaves the CL&P site at Hammonasset, he is scheduled to descend into the hell that New York City and New Jersey have become following Sandy, where the vast majority of the United States' more than 110 fatalities have occurred.
The US deaths are in addition to more than 69 in the Caribbean, and that was as of this weekend. They are still pulling bodies out of the rubble. The toll is rising.
Pagani is a gas expert, in addition to a safety expert. He expects both areas of expertise will come in handy while in New York and New Jersey.
"What you see is ... a brotherhood. Like firemen."
Get the job done while staying safe. It always comes back to that.
"These guys have got to leave their families and then emergencies come up and they hear about them," he said. "Maybe we lose a brother during the storm. These tragedies affect each and every line worker, but life goes on. You've got to worry about your families at home, you've got to worry about the family you work with."
Whether from fatigue or a desire to rush to get the job done, "I don't want to see shortcuts. What you see is sort of more a brotherhood. Like firemen. You have got to watch out for everyone."
How's Madison? The shoreline? The response ... dead silence.
Pagani paused while he finished his early breakfast of coffee and a cigarette.
"You know, I see my co-workers more than my regular family," he said. "I bet a lot of these guys are like that."
As he left to attend to his other duties and meetings, a group of line workers were asked how they were liking Madison and the shoreline.
Their response? Dead silence.
Throwing coffee? Swearing at workers? A story about a gun?
Perhaps that was the most diplomatic response they could provide. One reader on Facebook, who lives in Madison, reported witnessing someone in town throwing coffee at and swearing at line workers, telling them to hurry up.
And there was a story making the rounds at the staging area at Hammonasset Friday morning, that someone had pulled a gun on a line worker who had approached a house to let the homeowner know they were working outside. The people talking about the incident did not know if the report came from Madison, from the shoreline, from Connecticut, or from elsewhere.
Madison town officials, the CL&P official in Madison, and Madison Police Chief Jack Drumm said there was not a report of such an incident in Madison. And they all said they had not heard of any reports nearby. Still, the story was a concern for some of the workers, and a source of outrage for some of their support staff Friday morning.
"Polite goes away and people just want lights"
Jock Mulkey and Joey Munch from Pearl River, LA said "yes ma'am" when asked if they wanted to say anything to residents of the shoreline and Madison.
Up to day three, they said, people were great.
Day four? "Not so polite."
"It's going to get to the point where polite goes away and people just want lights," said Munch. Munch asked that we all be patient, that they will get the lights back on for us. They then headed out to do what they could do that day to make sure that happens.
By the time Mulkey, Munch--and their family for the week--got off-shift Friday night and piled back onto the buses to head for the hotels, the sun would be setting, or perhaps already done for the day, too.
"Nobody works harder"
Maybe some of them will get to see a Hammonasset sunset, perhaps from a high-up bucket of one of those tree trucks.
Tom Mc Caughey, a bus driver, and some of his fellow bus drivers were among the last to eat Friday morning. They let the line workers go first.
"Nobody likes to lose power," McCaughey said, in his Rhode Island accent, piling food on his plate in the mess tent. " You hear the politicians grand-standing, OK? But nobody works harder than these guys. Nobody."