When Hurricane Idalia knocked out electricity to nearly a third of Grady Electric Membership Corp.’s 20,000 meters last month, the Cairo, Georgia-based co-op was able to restore service within two days. While 171 mutual aid and contract personnel supported the co-op’s 30 line technicians in the field, they got a lot of inside help from staffers who normally do other jobs.

“The thing that few see is the chaotic environment in our operations-dispatch unit during a storm and the restoration period afterwards,” said Kyle Henderson, Grady EMC’s outside operations officer. “We are moving dozens of linemen and field personnel across our system.”

Following major storms, dispatchers field calls from 911 centers in the co-op’s service territory and listen for crucial information from public safety scanners. Calls from members reporting problems or asking about restoration status in their neighborhoods also increase. As Idalia threatened the co-op’s territory, member services staffers were prepared to step in this time.

“Every one of us feels a great sense of pride in helping out,” said Amy Harrell, the co-op’s customer service supervisor. Customer service representatives have learned the language of dispatch, using the same terms and inputting the same essential data that operations center personnel do on their screens to keep track of crews, energized lines and other system details. They also check the co-op’s text and voicemail systems, summarizing reports from those services and making it quickly available to dispatchers.

“The positive feedback that we have received from management and the linemen is very gratifying,” said Harrell. “We are more than happy to help!”

Idalia marked a big change in the co-op’s emergency operations plan, which previously allowed most nonessential personnel to ride out storms at home. The co-op’s experiences in 2018 after Hurricane Michael ravaged its territory prompted managers to rewrite portions of the plan.

“Michael knocked out power to our entire system, and restoration took 10 days, with 400 personnel from 22 co-ops and six contractors making repairs,” said Adam Starr, the co-op’s manager of marketing and member services. “We learned a lot from that experience, so we identified several areas where we could focus on improvements.”

Besides training the co-op’s eight customer service reps to field calls and enter and update restoration data, Grady EMC also developed new approaches for supporting visiting mutual aid crews and found ways to make the most of skills many employees have but seldom use in their regular jobs.

“We just weren't utilizing our talents fully,” said Starr.

For Judy Rogers, the co-op’s HR manager, and Jackie Mobley, an accounting clerk, that meant being tapped to oversee meal preparation and delivery and housing. With years of cooking for church events and at cookoffs, they know how to make meals for big crowds.

“Providing meals and lodging for our guys is the least that we can do,” said Mobley. “Those guys work so hard and the work they do is so dangerous. It makes me feel good to know that I can offer them a hot meal or a comfortable place to lay their head when they have an opportunity to sleep.”

From the time visiting crews and contractors began arriving until all storm restoration was completed after Idalia, Rogers and Mobley ran the kitchen, preparing large group meals and managing the process of packaging meals for field crews.

“Folks from accounting and human resources fixed plates and packed cartons,” said Starr. “We plotted this out on spreadsheets developed and updated from operations center information.”

Grady EMC staff, their friends and family made food deliveries to several jobsites, saving crews transportation downtime as restoration work continued.

The co-op’s updated emergency operations plan allows for in-house personnel to handle all responsibilities like laundry and lodging, unless their entire system gets devastated. If a large basecamp is needed, a co-op-owned site is available, and outside contractors take over those duties.

“What makes us successful is the preparation beforehand,” said John Long, the co-op’s president and CEO, adding that the new approach offers ample opportunities to involve his entire staff. “We make the best pairings of employees for restoration efforts, strategically place trucks across our system, and ensure that those trucks are stocked, fueled and ready.”

Meetings held in the days before Idalia made landfall focused on restoration job assignments. Customer service representatives spent time quietly observing control room operations to get familiar with workflow and message coding.

“Sharing some of the dispatch functions with the CSRs freed our dispatchers for training to handle some engineering functions, increasing staffing options for engineering and operations managers,” said lead dispatcher Al Brogdon. “Many of the guys in engineering were linemen first. Alleviating them of some of their normal duties, they’re freed up to utilize their skills as linemen.”

Managers at Grady EMC say the fresh approach to major restoration paid off after Idalia, with service restored quickly. With CSRs handling calls and texts from members, dispatchers can focus more fully on crew communications, shifting restoration assignments, and coordinating the delivery of poles and parts to jobsites, reducing operational delays and improving efficiency and safety.

“There is a narrow line between life and death when delivering messages like ‘opening the breaker’ and ‘closing the breaker,’” said Henderson. “The linemen are trusting us with the information we are providing. The cross-training that is happening has drastically improved that aspect during restoration.”