Braintree Electric Department Prepares for Winter Storms

The blizzard on Dec. 26 was one of the most damaging in recent years, BELD managers said, and the department responded according to plan.

By Joseph Markman |
January 9, 2011

An electric "feeder" line on Liberty Street -- 13,800 volts serving 850 Braintree residents -- was struck by a tree branch during the most recent blizzard, generating an alert at the Braintree Electric Light Department and launching into the snowy streets a two-man crew, who had been waiting in a garage for just such a moment.

They removed the branch and headed for the nearest substation to turn the power back on, returning service to residents about one hour after the line was hit. The incident caused the longest outage of the storm, which was the most damaging in several years, BELD General Manager William Bottiggi said in a recent interview. Technicians responded to 120 calls over 36 hours, starting at 7 p.m. Sunday night, Dec. 26.

BELD prepares for winter storms, as well as hurricanes and other strong weather patterns throughout the year, by bringing in extra workers ahead of time and deploying them in teams from its Potter Road headquarters in East Braintree. That move, Bottiggi said, is one portion of a strategy to perform well during storms that also includes using quality cable, tree maintenance and on-duty managers for anytime coordination.

"We do what we do, we are prepared," Bottiggi said. "[The blizzard] is an educational experience for what we're going to do for each storm. Every storm is different."

Just 20 percent of those calls from residents involved BELD electric wires, according to a report provided by Engineering & Operations Manager H. Joseph Morley. Seventy percent were for Comcast and Verizons wires down, the remaining 10 percent for tree damage.

"This storm was considered major by New England standards considering the heavy wet snow and very high winds," the report said.

Ahead of the blizzard, Morley said he tracked it and kept in communication with Bottiggi. The on-duty manager at the time activated a system called RapidAlert, which BELD also uses to reach out quickly to its customers, to contact employees during the afternoon Patriots game.

"It made everybody aware," Bottiggi said, that Monday would be a regular work day regardless of the snow -- with four-wheel drive chauffeurs to the job if necessary -- and that eight linemen and two troubleshooters were needed during the brunt of the storm.

"You have to make sure you have the bodies here if you need them," Bottiggi said. "They love to respond, go and put power back on for people." The overtime doesn't hurt either, he added.

The most significant advantage BELD has over regional, private utilities like National Grid and Unitil, which have been criticized for past storm performances, is that it is based in the community it serves, Bottiggi said.

But workers for the department are also available to other towns in Massachusetts, New England and across the country through a mutual aid committee under the Northeast Public Power Association. Morley is a member of that committee, which also includes representatives from Burlington, Wellesley, Holyoke and other towns.

On Dec. 27, Morley said he received a call from Hingham requesting help with outages caused by evergreen trees, which have shallow roots and are more easily weighed down by ice and snow than other trees. "They toppled over, taking wires with them," he said.

Crews from North Attleboro, Norwood and Wellesley responded. Braintree technicians have traveled as far as Bermuda to help with storms, Morley said. He added that it's not necessarily the largest storms, those with the most snowfall, that cause the most damage.

"You could have a foot of light, fluffy snow and no wind and no outages," Morley said.