The Big Story: Our staff living at work

By David Bertola

To ensure that customers have safe, reliable electricity and gas during the COVID-19 pandemic, control center staffs throughout our service territory have been sequestered. Below is the latest in a series of news articles that ran about our people and the stories that they shared. It features the western region control center in Buffalo. Links to other articles from throughout our service territory appear at the bottom of this article. 

By Matt Glynn, The Buffalo News, April 17, 2020

Chris Soufleris isn’t planning to go anywhere for a while.

Soufleris is director of National Grid’s western control center in Buffalo. He and members of his team have been sequestered at the site for more than a couple of weeks.

Western NY region control center director Chris Soufleris set up his office in a mobile command unit.

When they are not working, the National Grid employees are living at the center, away from their families. They are eating their meals at the site, getting some exercise and sleeping inside RVs parked on the  property.

Soufleris said it’s all in the name of keeping the lights on and the power flowing in the western part of the state, while keeping potential exposure to Covid-19 at bay.

“Our people have a highly specialized skill set,” he said. “It’s not like anybody can walk in here and operate the electrical system at this level.”

So instead of working from home, work temporarily is their home.

For up to a month at a time.

“We recognized that we need to protect our people,” Soufleris said. “If we lost a number of people due to illness and they were away for weeks on end, we would struggle to keep things going.”

Soufleris compares the employees’ jobs to air traffic controllers, for electricity instead of planes. From the nerve center – National Grid declined to share the exact location – they monitor power flow and deploy crews where needed.

About 20 people, a combination of National Grid employees and support personnel like chefs and maintenance workers, began sequestering about two weeks ago. Parts of the building were locked down. Employees receive daily health checks. The facility is regularly cleaned.

As director, Soufleris had lots of unusual arrangements to think about, like laundry for the employees and sleeping arrangements. RVs were brought on to the property. Most of the employees sleep in those, though some sleep inside the center.

As for entertainment, he brought in Wi-Fi connections and tablets so employees can watch movies in their off-hours. They also play video games, watch TV and use the internet.

The center already had a fitness center and shower. Soufleris had a basketball hoop brought in, but even shooting baskets isn’t so simple these days. To preserve social distancing and safety, games with players bumping into each other can’t happen.

“We have multiple colored balls, and a person can use one particular basketball so he doesn’t pass anything around from one individual to another,” Soufleris said.

So how is it all working out?

“Morale is super high,” Soufleris said. “The guys are really devoted to their task. They know how important their task is.” He credits the support personnel who are sequestered alongside them for being just as committed.

Soufleris recognizes the sacrifices the team members are making. They were away from family for Easter. Some of them have young children with birthdays coming up.

FaceTime is very popular among the group, keeping them connected with people outside the center. “It gives you a feeling of togetherness for a few moments,” he said. Soufleris has dinner with his wife over FaceTime.

The plan is for the current group to remain at the center for about 30 days. National Grid has a second wave either staying at home to remain healthy, or working in another vast site where employees are spaced far apart from each other. Expectations are this rotation of crews will continue, until it’s no longer needed.

Soufleris is proud of what he has seen.

“Kudos to my team,” he said. “They’re doing a great job, they’re staying focused, they’re keeping an upbeat attitude in spite of the circumstances.”

Other media coverage regarding our sequestered control center staffs has included: 

Wall Street Journal
ABC News Nightline interview feat. John Spink

Downstate New York
NBC New York – Powering on to Make Sure Power Stays On
NY1 News

Upstate New York
CBS Albany
Albany NBC 13
Daily Gazette, Schenectady
WKTV Utica
Syracuse Post Standard
Rome Sentinel
WSYR-TV Syracuse
WKBW Buffalo
WBEN Radio Buffalo
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

New England
WPRI Rhode Island
ABC 5 Boston
Worcester Telegram

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