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Western Massachusetts electric customers benefited from having local workings following storms, municipal utilities say

Saturday, February 18, 2012
By Ted LaBorde, The Republican

File photo by John Suchocki / The Republican
Kujtesa Bajrami, a third grader at the Barry School in Chicopee, shakes hands with Christopher Wenzell, a lineman for the Chicopee Electric Light Department during a presentation at the school in December. CELD linemen were awarded certificates and thanked by the third grade students for their work following the October snowstorm.

Municipal utilities across Western Massachusetts say their customers benefited from having local workers familiar with their turf to ensure quick response to power outages following the freak October snowstorm.

Repair crews living in their respective utility service areas and familiarity with municipal power systems are being credited with restoring power in some areas within 48 hours of the storm; nearly all power in the municipally-served communities was restored within five days, according to the companies.

“Many of our employees live in Holyoke, and that means they quickly identified the storm’s problem areas and knew how to reach them,” said Holyoke Gas & Electric Department manager James M. Lavelle.

“We (have) good familiarity with our system,” echoed Daniel Howard, superintendent of the Westfield Gas & Electric Department. Howard said his department has also pursued a “solid vegetation management program,” which helps keep damage to power lines to a minimum when storms hit. Along with a mutual aid network with other municipal departments and utilities, it all “worked in our favor,” he said.

Cooperation within municipal utilities and from other municipal departments, like public works crews in area communities, played a major role in emergency line repairs required in Westfield, Holyoke, Chicopee and South Hadley, all communities which have municipally-owned utility companies.

South Hadley Electric Light Department director Wayne D. Doerpholz said restoration of power in his town was slow, but it was completed within five days after the Oct. 29 storm. He cautioned, though, that he doesn’t want to compare his department’s repair work to others; “I don’t want to make comparisons when I don’t have all the facts,” said Doerpholz.

South Hadley had five linemen on duty when the storm hit, and additional contractors were hired to assist, he said.

In Chicopee, Jeffrey Cady, director of the Chicopee Electric Light Department, reported 11 full-time linemen and two foremen worked on the emergency power restoration effort with utility crews from Delaware Cooperative, Sterling, Wellesley, Taunton, Norwich, Conn., and Vermont assisting.

Westfield called its mutual aid partners from Templeton Municipal Light & Water, Norwich Public Utilities and two North Carolina partners, Greenville Utilities and Blue Ridge Electric; in all about 74 people assisted the department’s 50 workers, Howard said. Additional tree- and road-clearing crews assisted the power restoration effort in the Whip City, he added.

In Westfield, the typical storm staffing for the utility is between 12 and 18 people, according to Howard.

In Holyoke, the utility maintains a line staff of 20 and a full one-third of the department’s total 140-person staff assisted in the cleanup and restoration effort in that city, Lavelle said. “We had every able hand on duty,” he said.

Chicopee serves an estimated 26,000 customers, while Holyoke has 20,000 and Westfield 19,000 electric customers. South Hadley has about 8,000 customers.

Storm-related costs for each municipal utility were reported at $1.5 million for Westfield; $1 million in Holyoke; $500,000 Chicopee and $300,000 in South Hadley.

Staff writers Patricia Cahill, Jeanette DeForge and Michael Plaisance contributed to this report.