When initial reports of bushfires flaring on the NSW north coast emerged in early November 2019, emergency authorities immediately braced for the worst.
With drought-parched land facing prolonged periods of hot and gusty winds, all the ingredients were in place for a lethal firestorm. Within days, worst fears were confirmed as the NSW Rural Fire Service issued a catastrophic warning about the bushfire threat and a state of emergency was declared.
As bushfires ripped through the north coast and spread to other parts of NSW, authorities moved quickly to execute sophisticated and well-tested emergency response plans. Displaying similar levels of commitment and expertise, Essential Energy crews played a crucial role in ensuring community safety and protecting the and repairing the electricity distribution network.
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Covering 95 per cent of NSW, the Essential Energy footprint features high-risk bushfire zones. With safety – of employees, customers and the community – a priority at all times, Essential Energy implemented emergency response plans with military-like precision.
In preparation for bushfire season, policies and procedures are continually tested and refined during the year; new technologies are embraced and learnings from around the globe are adopted to ensure Essential Energy’s response is best practice.
With almost 1.2 million hectares in the North Coast ravaged by bushfires in 25 days during the November blazes, a comprehensive response was key. 600 Essential Energy employees were involved, working hand-in-hand with emergency services to restore power to more than 7000 customers affected by outages in the fire zones. Further highlighting the critical nature of the challenge, more than 100 customers who rely on electricity to power life support equipment were threatened by power outages.
Essential Energy operations created five operations hubs across the impacted areas to ensure complete alignment with emergency services. In addition, senior personnel were embedded in Rural Fire Service operations, to ensure coordinated and safe activity.
Essential Energy’s head of operations Sarah Roche said, “From day one, we always knew the scale of what was ahead of us was significant. Given the extreme conditions, we knew things would deteriorate before any respite.
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“We are always focused on getting the power back on as quickly as safely possible, but it was important to ensure the areas were cleared by the RFS before we deployed our teams – for the safety of the community and our employees. It was about steady, safe work and keeping our team injury-free.
“It’s dangerous work. Our crews worked for days through difficult conditions including thick smoke, challenging driving conditions, steep terrain, and hazardous trees to reach some of the impacted areas.
“With RFS clearance, we put our drones up in action to survey the work required, used helicopters to provide air assessment and we also had excavators in operation to assist teams to access challenging sites and replace poles safely.”
Essential Energy crews replaced 625 damaged poles and used 113 excavators and other heavy plant machinery, almost 100 elevated work platform (EWP) fleet vehicles or ‘cherry pickers’ and 426 light fleet vehicles to complete the repairs to the network.
Essential Energy’s vegetation management team worked tirelessly throughout the restoration effort to minimise the impacts on the electrical network from unstable trees – one of the biggest risks to community and network safety. The efforts of the teams on the ground were supported by Essential Energy’s in-house Fleet Management team. A critical part of the response, this allowed crews to perform important maintenance work on the ground resulting in a quicker turnaround. It meant Essential Energy trucks and light vehicles were repaired and prepared overnight ready for the next day’s operations.
With fires still raging, nature had more work in store though. When freak winds and storms knocked out power lines in Sydney later in November, Essential Energy crews offered its support to Ausgrid as it battled with the monumental task of restoring power to tens of thousands of homes.
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One of the key takeaways from the November bushfires was the public support, with communities affected by power outages showing nothing but gratitude and understanding of the need for Essential Energy crews to maintain a strong focus on managing crew’s safety.
“We could quote a number of facts and figures to help illustrate the extent of Essential Energy’s involvement in the response to the November bushfires but from our point of view, the most important statistic was zero – that’s the number of injuries to employees. It’s the most important measure of success,’’ Ms Roche said.
With Australia facing a long, hot summer and no end to the drought in sight, it’s almost certain Essential Energy crews will soon be asked to join the bushfire response once again.