As the coronavirus pandemic forces many of us to stay home, UniSource Energy Services’ natural gas crews continue their work to protect public safety and keep natural gas flowing to customers.
In addition to responding to emergencies, connecting service at new buildings, locating pipelines and assisting with public improvement projects – such as road widening – crews also are turning on service and checking appliances.
Much of their work requires that crews interact with their teammates, customers, contractors and others in the communities we serve.
About 35 percent of our gas system employees are still working in the field. Most of the rest are working remotely, though some are splitting their time on site and at home.
“The way we approach our job has changed. We’re a little isolated, but our responsibilities don’t change,” said Service Technician Ken Miller of Prescott. “Our job is still to keep the public safe. That’s our No. 1 priority.”
Roberto Guevara, UniSource Director of Gas and Electric and Operational Excellence in Nogales, realized very early in the pandemic that it would take more than “business as usual” to keep employees and customers safe.
“I was traveling in Mexico on March 11 and I saw the news and the reaction to the virus around the world,” he recalled. “The first thing we did was to identify and rank areas of our operations that would pose the greatest risk for spreading the virus and then took steps to reduce that risk.”
Employees in the field are taking new safeguards. While service technicians often work by themselves anyway, even those assigned to larger crews are now driving alone to work sites. On location, employees attempt to stay six feet apart from each other.
Employees must wear masks every time that a home is entered. Extra safeguards are taken when a customer is sick, reports exposure to COVID-19 or the employee feels uncomfortable. In those cases, the employee must consult a supervisor about necessary, extra precautions, which could include paper or synthetic-material suits, goggles, gloves or higher-level masks or respirators.
Some more routine jobs have been put on hold, as gas crews make priorities to maintain reliable service.
But some jobs can’t wait. Recently, crews were required to labor around the clock in shifts for four or five days to resolve a major gas leak at an intersection near residences in Prescott Valley.
Miller said he’s had to change his routine by suiting up with gloves and hand sanitizer while keeping a distance to customers on their property—a big change for someone who likes to shake hands.
“We might be the one physical person who someone talks to all day,” Miller said. “We’re doing more than just checking on appliances. We’re helping to give reassurance that everything is going to be OK.”
Martin Anaya, Director of UniSource Gas, said he’s proud of his team. “Through it all, you can’t ask for a better group. They all realize that they’re in it for the long haul for the community.”
Guevara, too, said he is incredibly proud of how quickly employees worked together to adapt and mobilize to rapidly changing circumstances. “I feel very proud of our response to a difficult situation,” Roberto said. “There’s a real understanding that we need to keep each other healthy so that we can serve our customers. Continuing to provide gas and electric service is critical to our community’s well-being.”