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updated: 7/15/2011 5:06 AM

Going inside ComEd's nerve center during this week's emergency

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  • The Emergency Operations Center inside the ComEd command post in Joliet. Some dispatchers' computer screens allow them to keep tabs on crews on trucks with a global positioning system. When a crew completes a job, the dispatcher can pinpoint the closest location for the next assignment.

       The Emergency Operations Center inside the ComEd command post in Joliet. Some dispatchers' computer screens allow them to keep tabs on crews on trucks with a global positioning system. When a crew completes a job, the dispatcher can pinpoint the closest location for the next assignment.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Tim McGuire working as the incident commander at the ComEd command post in Joliet. On the poster are lists of areas that had outages and have been crossed out as progress has been made.

       Tim McGuire working as the incident commander at the ComEd command post in Joliet. On the poster are lists of areas that had outages and have been crossed out as progress has been made.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Emergency Operations Center Operation Leader Kendall Hodge listens to a conference call about outstanding repair tickets.

       Emergency Operations Center Operation Leader Kendall Hodge listens to a conference call about outstanding repair tickets.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Using maps, contractor work dispatchers handle repair tickets at the ComEd command post in Joliet.

       Using maps, contractor work dispatchers handle repair tickets at the ComEd command post in Joliet.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Aerial photographs of damaged areas show on a monitor inside the Emergency Operations Center within the ComEd command post in Joliet.

       Aerial photographs of damaged areas show on a monitor inside the Emergency Operations Center within the ComEd command post in Joliet.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • ComEd dispatchers in the Operations Control Center for the North Region Andy Knoeder, left, and Tom Bojan reference map books before sending crews out to their next location.

       ComEd dispatchers in the Operations Control Center for the North Region Andy Knoeder, left, and Tom Bojan reference map books before sending crews out to their next location.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
 

Tucked in a stealthy building near a Joliet cornfield, ComEd's Michael McMahan just needed to check a large flat-screen monitor to prioritize emergency responses to this week's power outages.

Among the data-filled monitors in ComEd's emergency operations center, one listed the total number of power outages and broke them down by location. At 12:20 p.m. Thursday, the large flat screen showed 1,993 customers fed by a particular line still were without electricity in an area dubbed "Waukegan East," and a crew was on the scene.

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That screen full of information would have served as bad news to smaller clusters of customers also lacking power -- but linked to another line -- in the same area.

"You do the repair that will bring on the most customers as possible," McMahan said while leading a tour of the emergency operations.

Almost all ComEd customers were expected to have power by Friday night, officials said. At its peak, roughly 868,000 customers were without juice.

McMahan is ComEd's vice president of smart grid and technology, but assumes the role of primary emergency response director when power disasters occur. The emergency response room is part of an operations control center that's open around the clock, but was ramped up to handle power restoration in the wake of Monday's brief-but-mighty storm.

Based on information from a weather service, additional ComEd employees were called to the operations control center about three hours before the storm started causing damage across many suburbs. Dispatchers typically are divided into the Chicago, south, west and north regions.

"We have a really robust storm process with our teams," operations center director Cheryl Maletich said.

Some dispatchers' computer screens allow them to keep tabs on crews on trucks with a global positioning system. When a crew completes a job, the dispatcher can pinpoint the closest location for the next assignment.

Although ComEd's Joliet facility is decidedly high-tech, some old-school methods have been used as well in the power-restoration process. For example, north region dispatchers Andy Knoeder and Tom Bojan used reference map books before sending crews to another job Thursday afternoon.

Crews in the field have worked 16-hour shifts, followed by eight hours off. McMahan said arrangements are made from the operations center for hotel rooms for workers who are from out of state or too far from their Chicago-area homes.

McMahan said he understands the frustration of some customers who have been without electricity all week, but that ComEd has been pulling out all the stops. ComEd has been supplemented by power company workers and contractors from Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri and Kansas.

"It looks a lot easier than it really is," he said.

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