OPPD line maintenance technician Gary Wohlman settled into bed one Saturday about 1 a.m. at the end of a relaxing, weeklong Black Hills vacation. Three hours later, his phone rang.
A huge storm had barreled through Omaha, leaving more than 188,000 customers without power. Everyone in the utility was reporting to work, and out-of-state line crews were on the way. But someone had to show them where to go, brief them on safety, and keep an eye on their work.
So began Wohlman’s second, unofficial job at OPPD. Over the next week, he worked 15-16 hour days as an external crew coordinator – or, as it’s unofficially known in the industry, a bird dog.
When a bad storm hits, bird dogs play a little-known but crucial role at OPPD. When outside mutual aid crews arrive to help OPPD restore power, bird dogs make sure they’re repairing and restoring equipment to OPPD standards and finishing the work safely. They update OPPD dispatchers on progress and relay messages between on-the-ground workers and the utility’s storm response team that’s overseeing the recovery.
The job requires a deep knowledge of OPPD’s protocols, the experience to recognize what crews are doing, and the ability to lead under pressure when thousands of customers have lost power.
“It’s a lot to juggle,” Wohlman said. “You have to keep a lot of really good notes and maintain really good communication with our centers, our clerks, our supervisors, and perhaps most importantly, our dispatchers. I can’t be at every location at the same time, so you have to build that trust and really emphasize the need for safety.”
After last week’s major storm, OPPD deployed 13 bird dogs who worked with 142 external workers to help with the restoration.
When storms cause overwhelming damage, OPPD asks utilities from outside its service area to send line crews to supplement its own technicians and expedite the restoration work.
Sometimes, help comes from Lincoln Electric System, Nebraska Public Power District, or smaller, municipal utilities. Other times, crews arrive from as far as Missouri, Wyoming, even Louisiana. When they report for duty, those mutual aid crews aren’t always familiar with the intricacies of OPPD’s equipment, its standards or its safety practices.
Wohlman started as a bird dog 15 years ago to help supervise those mutual aid crews. As a journeyman from a line crew background, he knows OPPD’s practices well. In his regular job, he patrols the utility’s distribution and transmission systems to look for problems.
“That daily duty gives us a huge working advantage to be able to lead mutual aid crews,” he said. “We’re already familiar with the circuits, the neighborhoods and the streets, and we can give them the information they need.”
Mark Gorseth, another OPPD line maintenance technician, worked his first stint as a bird dog shortly after accepting the role in 2013. A storm rolled through OPPD’s service area, and his skills as a former line technician, crew leader and troubleshooter came in handy.
“I have a pretty good idea of what crews need out there,” Gorseth said. “I just want to make the process flow as smoothly as possible. We want to get people’s lights on, but we’re not going to cut corners as far as safety.”
The work is intense at times, especially with customers anxious to get their power restored, but Gorseth said he enjoys helping mutual aid crews so they can focus on their work. He checks in regularly with the leaders of each crew under his oversight, asking for status updates and relaying those back to OPPD’s storm response team.
“I’m basically a guide to answer whatever questions they have going forward,” he said. “The biggest thing is communication. I let them know that I’m their go-to guy.”
Bird dogs are among the first to get called once OPPD has decided to request mutual aid assistance to restore power. Dispatchers tell them which utility they’ll oversee and give them a time and meeting place, usually an OPPD center.
At the center, everyone huddles for a tailgate session where OPPD officials brief crews about safety procedures and take stock of names, safety equipment and the number of people working.
Getting the number helps OPPD track how many people are working in a given area and helps when booking hotel rooms, providing meals and coordinating work schedules.
Once they’re in the field, bird dogs serve as the liaison between crew leaders, dispatchers and OPPD’s storm response team.
Wohlman said he usually works through one or two crew leaders, who in turn guide line workers through the task at hand. He talks with dispatchers so he knows, without a doubt, which lines are de-energized and where crews can safely work. Sometimes, he finds himself in charge of 3-4 crews, all in different locations. Crews may have 15-20 line workers, plus 8 to 10 trucks with trailers and equipment.
Bird dogs are hugely important for OPPD when the utility is working to fix large-scale outages, said Eli Schiessler, the Construction Management Team Storm Duty Manager at OPPD. OPPD’s bird dog roster includes line maintenance technicians, engineers, cable splicers, electrical service designers and others.
“It’s really about efficiency in restoration,” Schiessler said. “Bird dogs provide one point of contact for our mutual aid crews so that they can effectively do their work.”
Over the years, Wohlman has learned little tricks to speed up and streamline a mutual aid crew’s response. He’ll ask crews to leave one member behind, at an OPPD shop, to grab parts when they inevitably realize they don’t have a necessary tool or piece of equipment on-hand.
The approach works well because, in many situations, Wohlman doesn’t need every member of a crew right away. Or, as often happens, they’ll finish one job and a dispatcher will send them to another that requires different materials.
“You have a lot of equipment that’s going to be necessary, but you usually won’t have everything,” he said. “Once we get there and we recognize that we need certain poles, transformers or wire connectors, (leaving one person at the shop) helps us expedite the restoration process. It just makes you more efficient, you’re not having to background and send a vehicle back for more material.”
Some of the jobs bird dogs oversee are especially challenging. Once, Wohlman worked with a crew that had to rebuild three miles of damaged distribution line west of Springfield. Crews removed every pole along the stretch and replaced the line. With help from a mutual aid crew, the job took less than two days.
“I think what makes it rewarding is the job at hand is a challenge,” Wohlman said. “Everything is out of the ordinary. But as a lineman, you appreciate challenges and take pride in getting people’s power restored under tough circumstances.”
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