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As Andrew’s anniversary nears, FPL line workers ready for stormy season

Normally Steven Bray fixes high voltage lines. But early Tuesday morning, he suddenly finds himself on a lifesaving mission.

An unconscious colleague is hanging at the top of a 45-foot pole.

Bray climbs up, wraps a harness around the motionless body, cuts the leather belt and lowers his co-worker to the ground.

A flawless rescue for a fake scene. Tuesday’s operation is a demo , and the victim is a human-sized doll.

“I am just getting prepared for cases of emergency,” says Bray, a Florida Power & Light line worker for nine years.

The so called “pole top rescue” is part of a practice plan that FPL has been pursuing for several years to strengthen its power restoration abilities.

On Tuesday, FPL showcased specialists like Bray at its Training and Methods Center in Hialeah that was created right after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The facility just north of Opa Locka Airport seems like an adventure playground for the highly skilled. There are transformers that need to be fixed, generators waiting to be restored, bucket trucks waiting for workers.

And it is here, where line workers wearing insulated clothing and gloves, recertify their climbing, switching and rescuing skills on dozens of poles.

To an outsider, the concentration of main lines and fuses may look scary.

“Always wear gloves,” signs read. The area is so packed with high voltage wires that following workers around almost feels like walking through a minefield.

FPL management thinks it is a good way to sharpen employees’ skills. And it is also a way to get out the message that FPL, which has faced criticism for unreliable service, is ready for even the worst storms.

This is a special year for FPL. The 20th anniversary of Andrew is just around the corner. The Category 5 hurricane that severely impacted large parts of Miami-Dade is still fresh in the memories of many South Floridians as well as FPL operatives and line workers.

Bruce Preshong, 53, an FPL specialist, clearly remembers the damages the massive storm left on Aug. 24th 1992.

“When I came back to my house in Cutler Bay the morning after the hurricane, I missed my whole street,” he says. “Instead I saw boats in places where normally cars were driving.”

Back then, Preshong’s FPL supervisor ordered him to Key Biscayne, where he and his colleagues worked 16 hours a day, risking their lives to restore electricity in the neighborhood.

Like the rest of the community, the company may have been caught off guard by the storm’s ferocity.

In Key Biscayne alone, it took the team two months to get everything running again.

There was massive destruction and hidden dangers to line workers out in the field from the sudden “back feeds” when people turned on their private generators.

“Our job is risky,” says David White, who worked as a crew supervisor in North Dade in 1992 and is still with the company. “But it is so gratifying to see the fruits of your work when the lights go on again.”

Today, Preshong, White and their colleagues feel better prepared for the stormy season.

“A lot has changed,’’ White said, referring to a beefed up FPL infrastructure in recent years. “We are much safer now,”

“Preparedness really got a boost,” says Chris McCluskey, who joined the company more than 20 years ago.

One of the FPL line workers’ most favorite tools is a GPS-based application that electronically manages outages by initiating rapid responses statewide. Once the application is activated, red signs on the screen highlight areas in which power problems occur. It takes just a couple of clicks to put a service team in charge, the specialists say.

To keep the system up to date, the company’s bucket trucks were converted to wireless communication centers, including smart products like iPads.

“Each truck is a hot spot now,” said Richard Britt, a senior line worker who has been on the job for 12 years: “That was a dream back then.”

But they all know this: One never knows what might happen. Even the best plans cannot guarantee that the impact of a massive hurricane can be minimized.

“We learned a lesson from Andrew,” McCluskey says: “You always have to prepare for the worst.”