Morrell Falls, Montana

When The Lights Go Out

Posted: August 3, 2020

The wind is howling, a blizzard is brewing and the lights begin to flicker. “Honey, will you grab the flashlight and I’ll light some candles in case the…” You can’t even complete your sentence before the power goes out and you’re left to listen to the wind wailing in utter darkness. This is a scenario that we are all too familiar with when living in the Northwest. We learn to anticipate erratic weather patterns and unfortunately the power reliability issues that go hand-in-hand.

If you’re a native to the area or a longtime resident, you may have an outage routine that happens during a black out at your home… check to see if the neighbor’s lights are out, fetch some flashlights, call your local power provider, unplug major appliances, etc. But have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a power outage? From small scale and planned outages, to widespread, multi-day outages, the team at MEC is equipped to handle it all.

Whether it be caused by weather, fallen trees, a material issue, burrowing animals or other curious critters, each outage is slightly unique and requires a different level of attention from our line crews. A minimal outage calls for one-to-two linemen, whereas a larger outage may require a full crew (or more). When a member calls in to let us know they’re out of power, we’ll request their address and/or account or meter number. Once we have that information, we enter it into our Outage Management System (OMS), which tells our team the approximate location and size of the outage. It’s also a good indication of the size of crew we’ll need to dispatch.

Once a crew is dispatched, they’ll meet at the outage site and patrol the line to identify the cause of the outage. The Foreman, who oversees the crew, will run a safety tailboard once the cause is detected. During the safety tailboard, crews discuss project risks and how to approach the outage and allocate tasks.

Safety is always the main focus before our crews respond to an outage. Each outage runs its own risks, especially when inclement weather is at-hand, and as such, requires its own safety precautions. Getting the power back on is always a top priority, but the number one priority, in every scenario, is the safety and lives of our crew members. We will stop or postpone work, if and when needed, to ensure the safety of our line crews.

From head to toe, our crews arrive to an outage donned in fire resistant (FR) gear. From hard hats, safety goggles and hearing protection, to work boots, rubber gloves and rubber sleeves, each article of clothing is equally as important as the last. The gear linemen wear and the tools they require are all dependent on the job at-hand and the weather conditions they may experience. Bucket trucks are equipped with the most commonly needed supplies and four wheelers, backhoes, mini excavators, Digger Derricks, a SnoCat and snowmobiles are always at-the-ready for any job or outage.

Every super hero has a famous sidekick, right? What would Batman be without Robin, for example? Well, our crews are no different. Think of our office staff as the trusted sidekicks, offering support to the crews around the clock. From staking and mapping to dispatching, each role is of utmost importance before and during an outage.

For safety reasons, we require a continuous stream of communication with our crews. The person who maintains this important line of communication between the crew and the office is our Dispatcher. They know where our crew is working and what their status is, at all times. They answer incoming outage calls and work with the supervisor on-call to coordinate outage response, as needed.

While members may not notice when the power goes out overnight, our on-call crew is at-the-ready for a possible call from the remote dispatch team. After-hours outages call for two linemen to inspect and address an outage, as part of our safety protocol.

Another key role is our GIS Mapping Technician. He knows our OMS system better than most, because of the groundwork he’s laid before an outage occurs. He creates and maintains the GIS mapping system, which the crew uses to locate lines in an efficient manner. This often means that your power returns more quickly! And if the restoration requires follow up or additional remediation, we pull in the expertise of our Stakers.

The power that feeds our members’ homes is originally generated by Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), who we can thank for our 95% carbon-free portfolio. The power that we purchase from BPA is delivered over BPA transmission lines, which intersect with NorthWestern Energy (NWE) lines. NorthWestern Energy then “wheels” the energy from BPA, across their transmission lines, to feed MEC’s substations.

Although power providers like MEC and NWE work diligently to avoid outages, they are inevitable. If NorthWestern Energy experiences an outage on a transmission line that feeds one of our substations, it can create an outage for members’ whose homes and businesses are powered by that substation. Simply put, MEC cannot respond to, or provide updates on, those outages. Much like our members, we sit back and wait for our partners at NWE to dispatch a crew and assess the outage, before receiving a report of what caused the outage and when we can anticipate that our members will be back “online.”

While MEC relies on the partnerships of BPA and NWE to deliver power to our members, we rely on partnerships with our neighboring cooperatives in times of significant outages. This type of partnership is called a “mutual aid agreement,” which is an agreement that MEC and our neighboring co-ops have relied upon many times over the past few decades. Depending on the severity of an outage and the damage it caused, we take an all-hands-on-deck approach. In circumstances, like winter storms, where power is crucial, our crews need rest in order to continue working safely, and/or the damage is too severe to be restored with our limited capacity, MEC will call in reinforcements using the mutual aid agreement.

We’ve talked about our line crews, support staff, safety protocols, equipment, partnerships and more, but we’ve haven’t highlighted WHY all of this is important in the first place. It’s YOU – our valued members! Without our members, there would be no need for outage response and restoration. Your role during an outage is JUST as important as our role. You’re the first person to realize that your light switch isn’t working, your alarm clock is blinking the wrong time, or, let’s face it, that you’re all of a sudden sitting in the dark (queue the scary music). Below, we’ve listed a few ways you can help us, help you!

1. The BEST way to report an outage is to call our office at 406.541.4433. Your phone call alerts our team and dispatches a crew the fastest (before and after hours). Alternatively, during business hours, you may send us a message on Facebook or enter an outage via SmartHub, your online portal.

2. Visit the homepage of our website and select the “Outage Map” icon to see if there’s an outage in your area or if it’s an isolated incident.

3. Login to your SmartHub account and opt-in to receive email and/or text alerts. These will update you on outages, planned outages and outage restoration statuses.

4. If there is a planned outage scheduled, often times due to right-of-way work, maintenance, system improvements, etc., our members will receive a call and/or postcard notifying them of the day, time and anticipated duration. First – add it to your calendar! There’s nothing worse than getting ready for work and forgetting that you can’t blow dry your hair or pour yourself a hot cup of coffee. Secondly – if you have any questions related to the outage, call us! We’re here to make the outage as quick and painless as possible for you.