Fort Smith, NWA area utilities prep for winter storm

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

An expected mix of Arctic air and wintry precipitation has regional and local power companies making preparations as the National Weather Service in Tulsa has placed Northwest Arkansas and the Fort Smith area in a winter storm watch starting Thursday afternoon.

The NWS issued the watch in the early morning hours on Tuesday, saying that the area would see all forms of wintry precipitation and in heavy amounts.

"Freezing rain will arrive in southeast Oklahoma and west central Arkansas Thursday afternoon," the NWS statement reads. "The precipitation will transition to a freezing rain / sleet mix then just sleet. Eventually the precipitation is likely to change over to snow."

The watch included an estimate that "a quarter inch or more of ice accumulation is possible."

OUTAGE RESPONSE PLANS
Due to the heavy icing that could occur, Greg Davis of Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperatives said plans are underway to respond to possible outages. Arkansas Valley has 58,000 customers in its service area.

"This is something that we prepare for year-round and when we start seeing something like this, when it starts looking like it's imminent, there's not a lot of jumping through hoops that we do because we are prepared," he said. "We have the plans in place for various scenarios. Tomorrow we have a meeting scheduled to run through all of that again. At that point, we feel like the forecast will be pretty solid."

Davis and Peter Main, a spokesman for Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) in Fayetteville, said each of their respective power companies had agreements in place to bring in additional crews to restore power should lines come down under the weight of heavy ice accumulation. SWEPCO provides service to more than 114,000 customers in Arkansas, with most of those in Northwest Arkansas.

"Utilities are members of mutual assistance networks, which allow us to call on resources from other utilities and contractors, as well, to provide crews and resources to other utilities as needed," Main said, adding that SWEPCO has not yet called in additional crews as they wait to see a more solid forecast tomorrow (Dec. 4).

"We have not called any crews at this time because we are still watching the weather developments, but our internal preparations with our own crews are proceeding."

Rob Ratley, a spokesman for Oklahoma City-based OG&E, said the utility – which provides services to a large part of western Arkansas – is working within its “command system” to best respond to disruptions. OG&E has about 65,000 customers in western Arkansas.

"For starters, we closely monitor the weather with the National Weather Service and we have a meteorologist on staff. Our strategy is to anticipate the storm as best we can and then align our resources to those areas that are likely to be affected,” Ratley explained. "A few years ago, we implemented an ICS (incident command system). This is very similar to the same type of structure that police, fire and the military have. It enables us to stage our resources and personnel according to the extent of the storm."

CUSTOMER OUTAGE PLANS
Arkansas Valley and SWEPCO officials said it was important for electric customers to make plans for a prolonged outage due to ice, which Davis said has been happening about once every five years in the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas regions.

"The big thing and this is always our biggest concern – is if it is going to be a prolonged outage, anyone who is compromised, especially in rural areas, should have plans to endure the outage," Davis said, adding that plans should be made now to stay with someone in town or make plans to rent a hotel room.

The NWS also advised individuals who choose to weather the storm at home to make emergency preparedness kits.

"Make sure you have an adequate supply of food…water and the necessary medication to last through the duration of the winter storm."

Ratley said OG&E does not anticipate significant power disruption.

"(We're) not really (expecting a lot of widespread power outages). Right now we're in the likelihood of sleet and snow with the possibility of some ice accumulation. But typically unless it's very widespread with a lot of broken poles, we're typically able to concentrate our resources to minimize the duration of outages,” Ratley said.

OUTAGE SAFETY
Main said it was important for residents making preparations to be not take unnecessary risks, such as attempting to cut limbs or branches near power lines prior to the storm, saying it is "an unsafe practice."

"The clearing of limps from lines should only be done by qualified individuals. SWEPCO's tree trimming efforts are done on a year-round basis. Any line clearing efforts for customers should only be done by utilities or qualified tree (trimming) companies. Typically those are not things you hurry up and do in preparation for a storm."

Should an individual encounter downed power lines, Main said to stay away from the downed lines and do not touch anything the line may be in contact with.

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Main also made sure to warn residents about the use of generators, saying the generators should not be plugged directly into the house. Instead, he said appliances and lighting fixtures should be plugged directly into the generator.

"Customers should (also) follow all the safety instructions for the proper and safe operation of generators," he added. The U.S. Fire Administration advises on their website to keep gas generators away from homes and garages due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, which it said "can kill within minutes."

The expected winter storm in the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas areas is part of a larger storm system that could cause disruptions across a large swath of the country, according to an AccuWeather report.

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