When the Milwaukee area was hit last week with a powerful storm that knocked out power for more than 225,000 customers – some for several days – plenty of us where asking “what’s taking so long?”
The answer, according to retired We Energies “trouble man” Mike Pankowski, who worked in the trenches for 39 years, is that these kind of major events simply take time to fix. It’s grueling, dangerous work: 16 hours on, eight hours off, until the job is done. Summer or winter, wearing rubber, thick flame-retardant clothes, often right in the middle of severe weather – it’s all hands on deck.
And because the risk of electrocution is always present, not just for the residents with downed power lines, but for the workers, themselves, it’s a job that can’t be rushed.
After power came back in Milwaukee, we talked to Pankowski about what life is like on the other side of a blackout.
OnMilwaukee: What’s the process like when there’s a major power outage like what we experienced last week in Milwaukee?
Mike Pankowski: I can refer back to the best was when that tornado went through North Prairie in 2010. They sent me out there, and I was on my way out there to obviously get as much restored as I could. And, I couldn't even get there because of all the downed trees. I was encountering downed power on my way out there, but I was just clearing it up on my own. It's when these things first hit, it's almost overwhelming when they're this big. You can't prepare for something like this.
On a normal day, you wouldn’t be working around the clock. What’s it like when you have to spring into action?
Troubleshooters do work round the clock, but we worked rotating shifts. When I was working in Milwaukee, we rotated on four shifts and then I transferred out to Waukesha and then we rotated on three shifts. So, there's always someone there. Always. A troubleshooter, by the way, can do a lot by themselves with small outages like lightning, things like that. When you get down to big trees coming down and poles coming down, all kinds of power lines coming down, you'll get there. You'll be the first one on the scene. What you do is you make it safe. You clear the downed wires from the poles, from the trees. And, if you can restore the power, you do. If you can't, you refer everything to a line crew, forestry crews, and then as a troubleshooter, you go onto the next job.
It sounds like being a firefighter, to a certain extent.
The same process repeats itself. If you make it safe, if you can restore it quickly, you do it. If not, you refer it to the people that need to come and clear the trees and just reset poles. That's what this storm was like. When you deal with downed trees, big trees and cracked off poles, you're dealing with a lot of time. It's one thing to clear a downed power line and be able reroute power. But, when you're dealing with the poles knocked off and things like that, then it takes a lot of time to restore the power.
How were you notified that it was time to get to work?
By the time I retired, everything comes through on your computer. That's how it starts out. And then the storm that happened the other day, they would mobilize and go to the service centers because the calls are too overwhelming to go out to their call center on Pewaukee. So they can't handle that. They'll go to districts like Waukesha, Pewaukee and there's a number of service centers in Milwaukee. And, then they handle the outages and their immediate area. And, then you have all hands on deck there. You've got techs and office personnel who'll go out and watch downed power lines to make sure nobody gets electrocuted by a downed power line. That's always your number one concern. And the public in general, can't tell the difference between a piece of cable TV wired telephone or our wires. A lot of the times you're wasting your time clearing cable TV.
That must really slow the crews down, right?
People don't know, and they'll tell people not to trust their instincts, anyway. Just because it's not arcing and sparking doesn't mean that it still could not be energized. So, you're doing that on the first day. Basically you're pretty much clearing debris, downed power lines and documenting where crews have to go to restore power.
What’s the priority in restoring power?
They'll be taken in by how many people can we pick up. Then you just work down the line. The people that fall through the cracks are the people who have their trees come down in their own yard and tear down their service going into their house. For the wire coming to the house, We Energy will fix and put it back up. But, if it tears the service mast with the meter off the house, the homeowner owns that, and they'll need to get a contractor to have that fixed. A lot of people don't realize that, and they sit and sit and wait and then they're wondering why it's taking so long.
I saw trucks coming and going. Was that because the troubleshooters were assessing and reporting back?
Exactly. As a troubleshooter, we work by ourselves. We'll team up pretty quickly, depending on the voltage that we're dealing with. If it's something that you can clear up and fix, generally we'll do it right away. If you can't fix it, we clear it so that no one comes in contact with any of the downed wires and stuff. You can't sit there and watch the stuff, and the cops don't want to sit there and watch this. And the fire department doesn’t want to sit and watch the stuff, either.
It sounds like dangerous work. What kind of precautions do the workers take?
It takes years before someone can work by themselves on these jobs. You're in training for quite a while before they allow you to go on your own. I was a troubleshooter for most of the time. I was a line man for about 18 months then I transferred into the trouble department.
What kind of physical and mental toll do these emergencies take on workers?
It’s 16 hours on, eight hours off. And, now that you have to wear a flame retardant clothing – that happened while I was still working – it’s hot and uncomfortable. And then you couple the rubber clothes and the sleeves that makes it incredibly uncomfortable and hot. Especially like the weather was when that storm came through, very hot and humid. It takes its toll on you. It really does.
After a day or two of this, was it hard to concentrate?
Your training keeps you safe. If anything, you get safer as time goes on. When these storms first hit, to speak for me personally and a lot of the guys that I knew here, you're kind of gung-ho. I mean, you know what it's like to be without power and you don't like leaving people without power. So, you try and get as much done as you can. As time goes on more and more people start getting involved with the system. I think they may have brought in a crews from other utilities this time.
I definitely saw crews from WPS in my neighborhood.
Well, as time goes on, you'll start seeing things like this. And, anyone who's had any smarts doing the job for a while, you're a little more cautious because you're not familiar with the way these people work. Everyone has to rely on everyone else to not energize something when not knowing that someone could still be working on something, or there could still be a downed power line. You've got to go over every piece of wire. Someone has to see it before they'll kick a breaker back and restore power for the fear of having just this one little wire that's down in someone's backyard.
That sounds very challenging.
They'll start getting engineers and techs and all kinds of people that they've trained them for this, but they can't do anything physically to help anything, but they've got eyes and they can go out and they'll look and make sure the wires are all up on the poles or the poles aren't cracked, or the wires aren't lower, and the trees aren't on the wires. And, if they encounter that, then they'll just report back to the service center.
When you were on the scene, were customers generally friendly to you? Or did you have to deal with angry people, too?
I've never had a problem with a customer. The only problems I have with customers are trees actually, when they think that We Energies owns the trees under the wires. They'll call for a tree trimming and they'll get upset as to why they won't take tree down. Especially with a big dead willow or something like that. That happened a lot. People don't realize trees under wires equal power outages, and it's just the way it goes.
What was the biggest outage you saw in your career?
Boy, they've all rolled together, there's been so many. The one that stands out in my mind, was the big ice storm that we had back in ’74. There was a big ice storm that just devastated areas around Milwaukee, Pewaukee, Hartland, and it just tore everything down. And, I was fairly new in the game at that point and that kind of floored me. And, in fact at that stage of the game, I probably hadn't been further west of 124th Street.
Did the technology get better on your end throughout your career to make your job easier?
Oh, yeah. It's more automated right now. Sometimes power goes on and off a couple of times before it finally kicks out – that’s fault interruption and that's gotten a lot better. The things that I'm not real happy with are the size of the feeders that we have. And all these voltages have gone up from 8,300 volts to the big service voltage now is 24,000 volts. And, those feeders are run for miles and miles and miles and miles. You could have maybe, say, 20,000 customers on a feeder like that, but with a lower voltage might only have 5,000 customers on that because that's all that voltage you can handle. So, when you have outages, you can just do the math on some of these bigger feeders that run the 24,000 volts, more people are out than they would be on a smaller feeder. The smaller feeders are much more isolated than the bigger feeders. As they rebuild, they're rebuilding to the higher voltages to put more people on a feeder. And, the distances are better that way.
People always complain about the state of the power grid in America. Could it be better?
Well, things can always be better, but trees always need trimming. Trees equal power outages, and tree trimming is always a never-ending thing. If you're going to hold the utilities’ foot to the fire, that's where I would go with that. They call it line clearance. They're supposed to be going over things every so many years, and they don't. The first place when they need money to cut back, they cut back on line clearance.
So, it's not so much the grid, it's more about the maintenance?
Right. Utilities service their own customers. Some don't have the money that the bigger utilities have. And so their maintenance is worse, but yeah, we're lucky around here. On TV, they talk about infrastructure. Most of these utilities don't take money from the government for these things. It comes from the rate payers. It’s not taxpayer money. Bigger utilities maintain their own stuff.
Now that you’re retired, did you still have a lot of sympathy for your former coworkers last week?
Oh, without a doubt. I've been retired now for eight years and everyone asks if I want to move down to Florida, or if I hate the winter. I love the winter now … now that I don't have to work in it. I think back at the times where I've been through all these storms and all the things that I had to endure, and I just took one job at a time. You get hot, you get wet, and you get cold. Then, the power's all restored and you can sit back and wait for the next storm and do it all over again.
Next time this happens, would you urge customers to be patient?
Oh yeah. When I retired, I put a whole house generator in for myself. So, I don't have to worry about anything like that. But, yeah. I know what's involved in things like that. Like I said, one job at a time, one day at a time, and then you're finally done.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.