EVERETT — Joe Rife looks like he could jab a utility pole into the ground with one hand.
Rife, a brawny lineman of 29 years, is exactly the guy you want coming to the rescue when a storm knocks out the lights.
There’s a lot more manpower where Rife comes from.
When the electricity goes off and we panic, the men and women at the Snohomish County PUD operations center kick into beast mode.
They thrive on disaster, with many working crazy long hours.
“We hit the storm out running,” Rife said. “We’re ready to go. All the trucks are ready to go.”
Rife doesn’t have a generator at home.
The publicly owned utility covers 2,200 square miles and maintains more than 6,000 miles of power lines in the county. It serves 352,000 electric customers.
The utility’s headquarters is a four-story brick building on California Street in downtown Everett where people go to pay their bills, attend a meeting, see a show in the auditorium or grab lunch at the deli.
By contrast, the operations center is off limits to the public and out of view. The 55-acre compound off Seaway Boulevard near the Boeing Expressway is fenced with a guard at the gate.
Dozens of white trucks and hundreds of transformers line the lot. Giant poles are at the ready. The warehouse is stocked with millions of dollars worth of fuses, wire and other materials. It’s like a Home Depot, but without the orange aprons.
That’s just one side of it.
The operations center is the brains as well as the brawn of storm trooping.
“A lot of our customers see the crews out in the field. They’re climbing a pole, they’re stringing the wires back up,” said Aaron Swaney, PUD spokesman. “But they don’t see all the people who are back at our operations center making sure everything is working efficiently. These are the people working behind the scenes making sure the lights come back on.”
From the outside, the command center on the grounds appears to be an ordinary office building.
Advance preparation starts when a threatening weather is forecast, such as the Arctic blast predicted for this week. If the storm ramps up, it’s a 24/7 operation, not only for those in the field but also behind a desk.
Chelsea Holte manages scheduling and dispatch to all areas, including homes and critical customers, such as hospitals, water pump stations and treatment plants.
“Everybody wants to be on that list,” Holte said. “Everybody wants to add their mom.”
Holte’s team is the hinge point between the calls coming in to the crews getting out.
During a big snow storm in recent years, there were 600 jobs on the board with 57 crews in the field.
It is up to customers to report the outage. Don’t assume your neighbors do it when you hear that pop and the lights go out and stay out longer than a few minutes. Call or go online or mobile to inform the utility. Otherwise, the people at the PUD won’t know.
The building also houses the energy control center, a restricted room encircled by walls of maps, sort of like NORAD, with desks in the middle for the grid system operators.
The grid is the layout and design of the transmission and distribution electrical system that’s made up of wires, poles, transformers, substations and more. It requires a special clearance to get into this room.
The grid is monitored around-the-clock, but extra help is called in for major storms.
In a windowed room above is the nerve center, where a team of media, engineers and officials oversee the action during a storm.
Some storms are better than others.
“With a windstorm, wind comes through, boom, it blows hard and everything falls down and you know what you got,” said Jason Zyskowski, a senior manager at the operations center.
“With the snow it can just continue. We keep having new outages. In a snowstorm, the guys are chaining up the trucks. It takes more time. Everyone’s freezing cold. They’ve been out there for days on end.”
Swaney said linemen and field staff can work 40 hours on, at the beginning of a storm, then eight hours off for rest. After that, it’s a cycle of 24 hours on, eight hours rest.
That’s part of the thrill.
“Everything gets turned upside-down in storms. That’s what we live for. I love the long hours,” crew foreman Jeff Roberts said. “We get to do our part, we turn the power back on.”
People are happy to see them roll up in their trucks. Dogs, not so much.
Roberts has worked at the PUD for about 21 years.
“It’s a family thing. My dad’s a lineman, my uncle’s a lineman, my cousin’s a lineman,” he said. “I knew from early on I wanted to get in the line trade.”
The family tradition might end with him.
“My son at Pullman, he’s going to be a doctor,” Roberts said. “He doesn’t want to do what I do. None of my kids want to do what I do.”
Hillary “Hud” Allworth has managed the operations warehouse for 26 years.
“It’s about $25 million of inventory,” he said.
There are five other smaller warehouses at PUD offices in the county.
“We’re the hub,” Allworth said. “They’re the spokes. We take material from here and distribute it to them.”
A severe storm brings a gust of support from other counties to the operations center.
“We’ve had excess of 30 to 40 crews working out of it. It’s kind of cool because you get a lot of trucks coming in from different utilities with different logos on their trucks — Grant, Chelan, Douglas,” Allworth said. “It’s a parking lot. Guys just champing at the bit to help us restore the power to our community.”
He keeps “storm baskets,” a kit with wires, conductors and repair materials, ready for crews to grab and go.
There’s a food supply chain, too, to keep the workers fed.
As the “Hud at PUD,” he gets a lot of jokes about his nickname.
The “Hud” is from his life before PUD.
“I was 18 and I was working for this company in California and this guy walked in and said, ‘I just saw the movie ‘Hud’ with Paul Newman and you’re just like him.’ He was a cowhand, rambunctious drinker, fighter, womanizer,” Allworth said. “I was not a womanizer.”