By Philip Reed
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a change of workplace for a number of WAPA employees, with many working from home to protect them from viral circulation in the office. What about the reverse situation, however? What happens if employees were instead to be sequestered at work?
It's a real possibility for those who cannot perform their mission-critical work remotely, such as dispatchers. Sierra Nevada, understanding that this was a question that needed to be answered in advance, chose two weeks in April and May to test their sequestration processes and procedures for power system dispatchers.
The processes and procedures were developed by a small group organized March 24 by Power System Dispatcher Training Coordinator Jeff Sundvick, who also serves as SN's Emergency Operations Center manager.
The team included Power System Dispatcher Outage Coordinator Alan Blanding, Power System Dispatcher Technical Writer Cory Danson and Supervisory Power System Dispatcher Christine Henry. Their goal was to intensively plan and execute tasks for the protection of Dispatch and associated personnel.
One of their earliest tasks involved making sure sequestered employees would have the necessary resources to stay on site for extended periods. This required the purchase and installation of beds, washing machines, dryers and chest freezers, as well as arranging food availability. They also procured and contracted nine RVs to serve as living quarters.
March 24 ended up being, coincidentally, the day the Department of Energy transitioned to maximum telework. The possibility of sequestration became even more realistic.
It was decided that two groups of dispatchers would participate in the sequestration exercise, consisting of eight volunteers: four automatic generation control dispatchers and four transmission system operator dispatchers.
One group's sequestration would take place April 27 through May 1 and the second group's sequestration would happen May 1 through May 5. Each sequestration would run for 24 hours each day, with participants working as normal and retiring to their RVs instead of returning home.
“The goal in sequestering the power system dispatchers, or having them live at the worksite, is to protect these essential workers from exposure to COVID-19 and ensure SN is capable of providing reliable electricity to its customers and the communities we serve during this pandemic," said Sundvick. “The lessons learned from the test sequestration would provide valuable information for all of WAPA and the DOE."
Before sequestering, all participants were tested for COVID-19. This revealed a hurdle that was not anticipated.
“The vendor hired to conduct the COVID-19 tests needed a doctor's order from a California-licensed doctor," explained Sundvick. “It was assumed that the WAPA doctor's order would suffice, but the individual is licensed in Colorado. California requires a California-licensed doctor to issue the orders. This almost prevented the power system dispatchers from being tested prior to sequestration."
Ultimately Safety and Occupational Health worked with the contracted doctor who SN uses for personnel physicals and was able to obtain the order. The tests were conducted successfully and there were no positive results.
Dispatch control center janitorial services were stopped to ensure that the participating dispatchers were completely sequestered from outside influences that could expose them to COVID-19.
SN management met with the American Federation of Government Employees union president to notify him of the planned sequestration test periods and resolve any outstanding concerns.
The experiment was ready to begin.
During the test sequestration, more unforeseen problems were revealed.
For instance, it was noted that if one of the participants had tested positive for COVID-19, the janitorial contractor did not possess the electrostatic equipment that would have been necessary for properly cleaning the work area.
In one of the RVs, the occupants reported problems with the refrigerator and the television, raising the question of how to have such units repaired while adhering to total sequestration. In this case, the employees contacted the vendor technician, who walked them through the steps necessary to get the units working correctly again.
Across the RVs, participants reported missing toilet paper and kitchen items. It was also determined that the schedule for cleaning the RVs and removing the wastewater was disruptive to employee sleep schedules.
Of course, this is exactly why tests such as these are performed. Resolving the problems during testing results in much cleaner execution should a need for actual sequestration arise.
The hurdles encountered did not significantly impact the participants' experiences. After the experiment, participants completed a survey, indicating that the average job satisfaction was 4.32 out of a possible 5. They also reported a feeling of appropriate support from WAPA (4.72 out of 5) and an assurance that they felt well prepared to fulfill their work responsibilities during sequestration (4.84 out of 5).
Overall, Sundvick described the experiment as “a success."
“The dispatchers ultimately felt safe and supported, and the mission continued without incident," he said.
This meant sequestration could be a genuine solution for WAPA to keep the lights on for more than 40 million Americans if necessary.
SN's COVID-19 response is a collaborative effort, including the region's Emergency Operations Center, Maintenance, Procurement, Safety, Operations, Logistics and Public Affairs. Multiregional coordination was essential to the successful outcome of this initial undertaking.
Sundvick also spoke positively about how well any unforeseen difficulties were addressed.
“Their logistical concerns were resolved quickly," he said, “and those granular details will be monitored with the contractor moving forward to prevent recurrence, should the need for sequestration arise."