A utility worker walks the edge of the floodwaters submerging Broadway in Westville, N.J., on June 20, 2019.
When disaster strikes, ordinary citizens clear the way for first responders such as firefighters, paramedics and police officers to get where they are needed most and to do so quickly. But utility workers, who sometimes are called upon to rapidly address life-threatening situations such as gas leaks or downed power lines, nevertheless can face literal roadblocks hampering them from doing their jobs.
For instance, when electrical outages continued for weeks after Hurricane Sandy collided with the U.S. mid-Atlantic region in 2012, efforts by some utility workers in New Jersey and New York to bring the power back on were hindered because those workers were held to the same rules as other members of the public, according to Jim Slevin, the president of the Utility Workers Union of America.
Slevin recalled that union members in some areas had to wait in mileslong lines just to fill their cars with gas before heading out to job sites, while others had difficulty getting permission to drive on certain roadways at all. But more traditional emergency workers do not face those problems when responding to disasters, he said.
"With first responders ... it was real easy to go get gas," Slevin said. "Our members had to go sit in lines with other people."
Recent moves by at least one regional power grid operator to sequester critical workers on-site in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have helped highlight how critical utility employees are to maintaining routine daily life in America. And disruptive operational issues such as the ones that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Sandy are among the reasons the union wants its members to be classified as first responders so they can have the advantages such a designation confers during emergencies or crises.
"My membership is out there, night and day, trying to make sure that society keeps moving along," Slevin said. "They're needed ... more than ever before, as we're bunkered ... in our houses."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency recently issued guidelines stating that utility workers, among other professionals, are part of the country's essential critical infrastructure workforce. But being considered essential is not enough for the union's members, Slevin said.
Acknowledging that the union's efforts to secure first-responder status for its members in states such as New York, Ohio and Michigan have been unsuccessful thus far, Slevin said he knows of none that have extended such a classification to utility workers.
As for potentially securing some sort of federal designation, Slevin said his union has not "really tested a lot of those waters." But based on utility workers' experiences during the current coronavirus pandemic, Slevin said he plans to "push more" in that direction.
'A distinction without a difference'
Others in the industry are not so sure that any official relabeling is necessary.
Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness for the Edison Electric Institute, in a recent interview said insisting that utility workers be called first responders instead of essential personnel is "a distinction without a difference."
Aaronson said he recognizes the importance of ensuring that workers' needs are being filled during the coronavirus crisis, noting that "you do see new issues and new circumstances that are arising — it's just the unique nature of this particular pandemic."
"I do not disagree ... that there are certain things that happen during a crisis where we need to ensure that the workers who keep the power on and the gas flowing are treated in a particular way," Aaronson said. But he said explicitly designating utility workers as first responders may not be as helpful as preparing better for crises through the "war games" various officials conduct to anticipate needs in various emergency scenarios and increasing real-time communication with government officials throughout the chain of command.
Aaronson, who also serves as the secretary for the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, which liaises between senior government officials and power sector leaders on matters of national security, said that group has been actively engaged in crisis planning with officials "at high levels of government for more than three weeks now."
"We are working with the feds and with the states and locals to make sure that those people are treated like first responders, if not officially [called] first responders," Aaronson said.
Given that what constitutes a normal daily routine has been rewritten by COVID-19, Aaronson said the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council is working to ensure that those who keep gas and electricity flowing can move about freely even in regions that are under lockdown. The group also has prioritized goals such as getting utility workers access to personal protective equipment, testing and treatment, he added. Aaronson cited the Department of Homeland Security's guidance on mission-essential workers as a sign that utility personnel are being prioritized.
Few utilities responded to inquiries about their position on a potential shift in designation for their workers. Those that did, however, did not seem to feel the change was all that necessary.
When asked how the lack of first-responder status impacts utility workers, CenterPoint Energy Inc. spokesperson Natalie Hedde said the utility has been able to complete its work successfully to date without that designation. "Government officials recognize the importance of exempting utility workers from various orders, which allows our operations team to respond to customer needs accordingly," Hedde said.
At Boise-based Idaho Power Co., spokesperson Brad Bowlin said, "We are not first responders, but we are considered essential," and that status "has not inhibited our ability to do our work."
"My understanding is that we have not sought first responder status" for utility employees, Bowlin added.