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Looking Back: FortisAlberta - Fortifying the Force


John Kinnear

Jan 17, 2024

The very last thing that the FortisAlberta crews did, as part of their Coleman upgrade program here this year, was to install a simple pair of insulators.

The very last thing that the FortisAlberta crews did, as part of their Coleman upgrade program here this year, was to install a simple pair of insulators.  I know this because it was on a set of guy wires attached to a new 45 foot pole installed, on their last day here, in the back alley behind my house.   Why on the stabilizing guy wires I wondered.

Well, because I have a curious nature. I engaged one of the always accommodating crew that day about its significance.  It was explained to me that in the event of live wires, for whatever reason, making contact with a guy wire, its charge would not make it down the wire to where, heaven forbid, someone was standing or even worse touching the guy.  This new pole also has a lightning arrestor which will divert lightning voltage down a wire that runs into the ground. And just for good measure the bottom eight feet of that ground wire is covered with a plastic tube to further reduce the risk.

Just another level of due diligence and safety protection that this company operates with.  Once done, that day, these two technicians and the rest of the crew headed out, en masse, to their next upgrade job in Sundre. It must have been quite a sight to see all those bucket trucks and support vehicles heading out together up Highway 22.

Apparently they are one of two ‘travelling crews’, whose job it is to work on FortisAlbertas bigger improvement projects. There are also nine Power Line Technicians (PLTs) who serve the Crowsnest Pass from their operation centre in Pincher Creek.

A little background on all the going’s on this year within our power grid is perhaps in order.  FortisAlberta acquired our utility in 2018 and has been systematically upgrading our system since that time.  When one studies our existing power network and its age and standards, one realizes this has been a really significant and important move.  The system did not align with FortisAlberta standards and that had to change.  According to Mona Bartsoff, a senior communications advisor with FortisAlberta, “Our system is designed to seamlessly work together so that in the case of a power outage, power can be ‘re-routed’ from another source. That is why it needed to be re-built, to align with our system and meet today’s construction standards.”

Looking back in time, as I am wont to do, I found a cyclonic event,  reported in a local newspaper clipping from 1957, that talked about winds that funneled through the Pass and tore the hell out of Bellevue.  Almost every house endured some kind of damage in that event and in the process seven telephone poles were knocked down.  Pass winds are unpredictable and can be very powerful, so knowing your grid can withstand this kind of monkey business is an important thing. Power outages can cause no end of grief as we saw in 2005.  That, amongst several other reasons, is why you see the myriad of new 45 foot power poles in Coleman and Blairmore towering over their old counterparts. FortisAlberta’s entire electricity distribution system in southern Alberta is specially engineered and constructed to withstand wind.

This upgrade has several elements to it, besides the more substantial poles that have been systematically planted throughout Coleman. One of them is a power strength upgrade, from 4160 volts to 14,400.  According to Bartsoff, who has worked closely with this project, this is a more reliable system and aligns with over 240 other communities across Alberta. 

New lines and new transformers were required for this modernization of the system. And those poles, well, let’s just say they are built to take strong winds and endure the environment here. They also must carry the weight of telecommunication and cable lines “under strung” on the FortisAlberta system . You may have noticed how substantial they are in girth and I do not envy anyone who happens to run into one.  Out of curiosity I tried wrapping my arms around a 53-inch-diameter whopper planted near the Blackbird and couldn’t touch hands. I have watched them several times plant these 45 footers and the process is rather unique.

This grid renovation more or less guarantees that we are fully prepared going forward into the future, development wise. I have had several occasions to engage these crews as they worked in some pretty tricky places and in some nasty weather conditions. My back alley was no exception, where the hydro-vac truck, which are run by contractors to create the 6-foot-deep holes, ran into the massive sandstone formation that forms the hill directly west of me.  They only got three feet down and got stopped cold. So it was no surprise a few days later to find Joe Trotz, on a backhoe with a hydraulic hammer attachment, in the alley, ensuring that they got the required depth to plant yet another whopping big pole

I tracked down a fellow named Jamie Podmoroff, the overall foreman for the 23 guys working here, and got the lowdown on the whole operation.  Jamie told me the crews were overseen by 3 lead hands and consisted of 13 journeyman and 10 journeyman apprentices.  Jamie himself commuted from Edmonton to the job site and most of his crew were from places like High River and Central Alberta. Those pole jockeys worked an 8 day on, 6 day off shift schedule and the days, no doubt, could get very long.  Any of the crew members I chose to engage with questions were polite and readily shared the significance of what particular thing they were doing.  Every single one of the crew I talked to said that the Crowsnest Pass was the nicest job site they had ever worked in and that their engagements with the public were always pleasant.   That speaks volumes for who we are as a community. To show their appreciation the crew pooled enough money to make a significant donation to our local food bank at Christmas because they have grown so fond of the community.

As they proceeded with their work in a certain area in town the crews strategically set up a series of new poles for transition and when the time was right, walked around to inform the area residents of what was usually a very brief outage, as they made those  organized speedy switches.  Every part of town they worked in had special signage and the crews worked to a set of strict safety protocols.  

FortisAlbertas service also features an Alberta-based 24/7 customer call centre, a mobile app that advises customers of outage details, automated metering, and LED street lighting. I have noticed that street lighting is a lot brighter than the old ones and apparently draw less power. I recall using their outage app in October of 2017 when that fire broke out across from the sulphur plant and raced toward town.  The app’s icon, displaying the location of the issue that day, was pretty much right on the spot, which was a power pole on the north side of the highway just west of the Allison turnoff.

That is where that fire started, with wicked winds knocking down a line there and starting a fast grass fire that jumped the highway and roared eastward. FortisAlberta has several measures in place to mitigate fires including de-energizing the system if needed and fire-fighting equipment and resources throughout their system.

Going forward, the crews tell me they will be coming back in 2024 to places like Bushtown and parts of West Coleman to finish this upgrade, one that started in 2018.  I’m bettin’ every hydrovac pole hole they put in Bushtown will be full of water in short order.  As for the old poles that get yanked out of the ground, Jamie tells me that they are often donated to groups for firewood and to groups like the skidoo club.

I am remembering, as a kid, way back when my father was Town Foreman here, how street lights were handled.  There were iron foot holds placed strategically up the power poles so they could climb up to change the light bulbs. You can still see some of these foot holds  in the Douglas Firs on the Miner’s Path where a few lights were installed for the coal miners making that walk to work.

Back then those giant street-light bulbs somehow seemed to get broken periodically, but I’m not fessin’ up to how that could happen. The foot bars on the poles also served as perfect places to hang people’s gates, on what seems to be an exclusive Pass only tradition, known as Gate Night.  Iron foot holds have been replaced by sophisticated bucket trucks so your gate is safe.  Maybe.

Having taken a great deal of time observing this FortisAlberta upgrade, I feel genuinely reassured that the power grid here is in good hands going forward. 

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