Priorities in an Emergency

In a winter storm, whose phones, routes and power get prioritized?

The Willamette Valley winter storm that started Jan. 13 caused considerable damage to Lane County’s “infrastructure and electric utilities,” according to a statement from Gov. Tina Kotek. The effects of the ice storm were dire enough for the county, state and cities to declare a state of emergency. 

In the wake of the storm, which also caused significant travel problems, Lane County residents are facing days without power and a lack of cell reception. Power restoration is prioritized by the volume of people affected, says Aaron Orlowski, Eugene Water and Electric Board spokesperson.

When it comes to the roads, Eugene’s Ice and Snow Plan is “designed to keep transportation systems as operational and as safe as possible during ice/snow storms.” The city prioritizes clearing streets based on their traffic volume, elevated structures such as bridges and overpasses, emergency service locations, geographic constraints like steep hills, historically hazardous traffic locations, Lane Transit District bus routes and school districts.

After a Jan. 14 traffic jam that lasted overnight for some drivers, the Oregon Department of Transportation informed residents on Jan. 16 that the northbound traffic on Interstate 5 south of Eugene was clearing, but due to ice, that 15 to 20 mile stretch was continuing to move slowly. ODOT crews re-sanded that section of the interstate as well as other highways.

Travel delays improved after the ice melted, but by the morning of Jan. 17, after the second round of ice, about 24,000 Eugene Water and Electric Board customers were left without power. EWEB restored power to 4,500 by the late afternoon. The utility says it finished repairing all in-town feeder lines late that night.

The storm damaged not only power lines, but also infrastructure like cell phone towers. An inoperative cell tower can affect the service of other towers, an AT&T technology support employee tells Eugene Weekly. With ice and wind galore, towers are vulnerable to damage. “The functionality of a tower depends on weather,” AT&T tech support says. 

One broken tower won’t fully cut out the service, but it will affect it. An overload of cell phone users on one tower may also “affect the connectivity,” AT&T adds, which means cell users are unable to use data or send texts the way they normally due until repairs are done. 

However, first responders and those necessary to support them are eligible for the First Responder Network Authority, a federal wireless cell phone platform designed for emergencies. The FirstNet mission is to “help ensure first responders have as much coverage and capacity as possible,” as stated on their website. Individuals with FirstNet take priority over everyone with regular cell phone service. 

If there’s a piece of equipment that needs to be fixed in order to restore power to 1,000 customers, EWEB will fix that before they fix the piece that will restore power to a dozen customers, Orlowski says. “We prioritize restoring power for the greatest number of customers first.”

Typically, main power lines are at the top of the power outage repair list. It is most efficient to fix the main lines first and go back for the individual lines later. These are the “big feeder lines along major roadways,” says Kyle Roadman, general manager at Emerald People’s Utility District. “The folks that get power back first are the ones that are probably closer to those main lines.” 

EPUD has warned customers with power outages that the outages could last for a week or longer. “At this point, there’s so much damage across the system, especially after last night, and we’re continuing to see trees fall down. So it’s really hard to give estimates at this point. Whatever we say now is going to change in an hour,” Roadman says.

And in Springfield, work is continuing to restore power, and Springfield Utility Board has issued a boil water order for customers in Springfield’s west and east distribution system. The city said Jan. 18 that the Bob Keefer Center is being used as a staging location for utility crews called into the area “to amplify SUB’s power restoration efforts.” The city urged residents to “be prepared for a lengthy recovery effort. Make sure you have plenty of food and water at your house.” And adds, “Restoring power at water distribution sites is the highest priority for SUB. But please reduce your water usage as much as possible.”

EWEB notified customers that the majority of outages should be fixed in a few days. “It just depends how fast we’re able to work” while “making sure we’re getting those bigger outages fixed before we return to the smaller ones,” Orlowski says. A Jan. 18 press release says for a “small number of customers in areas with difficult repairs and severe damage, such as more remote areas upriver,” it could take longer than a week.

The Jan. 18 press release also says the company is following its own protocols to guarantee safety and to restore power to the most substantial number of customers first. The first thing EWEB does for an outage is attend to dangerous situations. This could be a downed power line. Next, the utility assesses the situation and identifies the cause of the outage. Then EWEB repairs the outages in the order that will quickly bring the most customers back online, Orlowski says. 

For EWEB customers who live in the McKenzie River Valley, getting power back is more complicated. The Bonneville Power Administration, which supplies EWEB, is experiencing transmission line outages, Orlowski says. “We’re focusing on getting those transmission lines up and running, but that has been contributing to the difficulty with restoring the power up there.” Transmission lines carry power over long distances.

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