“Well,” DuBose said, standing on her front lawn, “I guess the system got so inundated with calls, I guess, it collapsed.”
He and his cohorts work for one of the region’s most vilified companies and perform tasks that are stressful, dangerous and often under-appreciated by the public. Pepco employees on the front lines of the blackout battles have largely kept quiet in the aftermath of the powerful storm that knocked out power to more than 483,600 Pepco customers in Maryland and the District, fearful to speak without permission.
But DuBose and other company linemen and employees, interviewed at length, offered nuanced views about their performance, expressing pride in how hard they worked for days after the storm and more than a little frustration at the public’s anger and often unrealistic expectations.
Their greatest frustrations, however, they reserved for their employer, saying that Pepco needs to hire and train more senior linemen so that the company does not have to wait for days after a storm for less-capable out-of-state contractors to arrive.
“There’s definitely a lack of manpower, of internal employees,” said James Tarantella, another senior Pepco lineman who worked after the derecho. “We have a lot of contractors who are unfortunately not as good as Pepco workers. The contractors can’t switch on mainline feeders. A lot of the problems with restoration are due to cutbacks years ago, and now it’s come back to haunt us.”
Pepco has vigorously defended its efforts at restoring power after the storm, reporting to Maryland regulators last month that it had moved more quickly than other utilities and ultimately called in an additional 1,200 utility workers from Florida, Georgia and elsewhere.
The average outage time for Pepco customers, the company told the Maryland Public Service Commission, was 26 hours, considerably less than the average 37.5-hour outage endured by customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric.
But George Nelson, the vice president of operations and engineering of Pepco Holdings, agreed that the company needs to hire more linemen. Pepco had 162 staff linemen in 1997, the company said, and now employs 147, although the company today has 400 local contractors, compared with just 155 local contractors in 1997.
The company said it will hire 35 more linemen and other workers by 2013.
Nelson and many other Pepco supervisors said that, even in a battered economy, it’s hard to find experienced senior linemen. Pepco can’t easily poach from rival utilities because, in their profession, linemen typically begin at an early age, work in the area they grew up in and are too invested in that utility’s benefits programs. Pepco can hire contract linemen as staff employees, but they generally lack expertise and need several years of training.
Union: Hire more linemen