When lightning strikes in the Pacific Northwest, falling trees may bring down many power lines simultaneously.

"Storms are our number-one emergency," said Ranjan Bhagat, manager, Energy Control Systems and Telecommunications Services, Puget Sound Energy (PSE), Bellevue, WA. Many crews may be dispatched to work on different sections of the fallen lines," he said. "Because of the safety factor, it's absolutely critical we have good communications," Bhagat said. "With our mobile radio system, a single foreman can speak to some 50 workers both up and downstream."

Bhagat explained that in a crisis he can rely on his private radio system for channels that are always available, whereas a commercial communications system, such as cellular, may not be available because of the same emergency.

"In a crisis, everybody wants to talk, and the lines get busy real fast," Bhagat said.

Using a private system offers the advantage of talk groups with a team leader directing the conversation and preventing everyone from talking at once. But everybody is on the same line, and communication can take place so that everybody works together in a situation in which a single wrong move can be fatal.

"Our private radio system basically allows us to get a handle on the action and to maintain complete control as we restore services cut off by a storm," Bhagat said.

PSE distributes natural gas, as well as electricity. The geologic potential for earthquakes in this Pacific Rim region, as well as for underground gas explosions, intensifies the need for a dedicated emergency radio system. Fortunately, these disasters haven't occurred yet, but PSE is prepared.

There are, in fact, two radio systems because the present investor-owned company was created by a 1997 merger of two separate electric and gas companies: Puget Sound Power and Light, and Washington Energy.

The electric side of the business is supported by a simplex VHF radio system that includes about 1,500 mobile radios for 1,500 users, with about 60 base stations and 60 operations counsels.

The gas side is supported by an Ericsson 900MHz EDACS trunked radio system.

"This trunked system is state-of-the-art land mobile, as compared to the simplex on the electric side," Bhagat said. The trunked system allows for automatic channel selection instead of using dedicated channels for talk groups, as does the simplex system. The trunked system automatically searches for clear channels to assign to users, thus allowing for a greater spectrum efficiency.

"The analogy I use is that of multiple grocery store lines as opposed to a single line at a bank," Bhagat said. "Waiting in many long lines is inefficient, compared to the single line in a bank. When the next cashier is free, the next customer is taken care of. The grocery lines represent the simplex, and the bank lines the trunking, which is more efficient because of the computerized dimension."

On the gas distribution side there are about 550 mobile users and seven transmitter sites for service areas.

Adding automation In the past, if PSE wanted to reprogram the mobile radios, a radio tech would have to go to the user or the user would have to bring the unit to the service center. Now, the company is beginning to remotely program the radios.

"This is a neat application that allows for efficiency without the need to send the technician to the user or vice versa," Bhagat said. "In the future we would like to further automate our radio system."

Expanding computerization also requires a more sophisticated skill set among radio users.

"Basically, everybody we hire needs to have a basic communications background, and we provide classes so everybody stays current with the latest technology, such as our introduction of EDG, the electronic data gateway which allows for over-the-air programming of mobile radio," Bhagat said.

Another advantage of the trunked radio system is that while it allows for multi-user conversations, it can also be used for private one-on-one conversations.

"It's cheaper than using a cellphone, but it's just like having a private phone when you want it to be," Bhagat said.

For both the electricity and the gas services, mobile radio systems are used primarily for the dispatch of service and line trucks.

"We also installed consoles in our energy control center from which we control operations and communications, and we have centralized dispatch," Bhagat said.

As the largest investor-owned energy company and the largest utility in Washington, PSE serves a territory of about 6,200 square miles, comprising 11 counties, primarily in Western Washington. PSE has about 1.2 million customers, electric and gas, clocking into about 1.4 million service meters.

Mobile radio addresses the need to cover this large area 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, the communications needs of the two sides of the business are not always similar. One challenge for the electric side is the uneven, hilly-even mountainous-terrain.

"On the electric side, we have 60 stations spread all over, some on mountaintops, and we have to have enough redundancy in this system," Bhagat said. "The availability has to be 99.99% for electrical, and, every now and then, if we have a problem, it has to be fixed right away."

Along with specialized technicians who report centrally, there are four regional centers because the service spread is so wide from Bellevue headquarters.

Bhagat does not intend to consolidate his radio services in the near future, but he believes in keeping his options open.

"Any time you put in a system, there are significant capital investments involved, which, as a manager, you have to look at," Bhagat explained. "And if you are looking at replacing a system or putting in some new aspect, you have to continue to look at the total picture.

"My advice to a prospective planner who has to cover a wide service territory is that you have to be smart. If you have only 'x' number of dollars, use the 80/20 rule. Put your money in a system that will cover that 80% most in need of coverage. Then, for the remaining 20%, use alternative systems." Such alternatives, Bhagat explained, might be smaller private owner systems in a particular area, special FRM mobiles, or even commercial options, which he said might become more dependable, and therefore, viable, in the future.

"Figure out what the business requirements are, what are the resources available and the demands. Out of that, the solutions will become clear," Bhagat said "It's not necessary to go after the Holy Grail of one, totally integrated system, especially if it's not affordable. The point is that it's OK to have multiple solutions."

Electrical production: 11 plants (96MWh each) Distribution pole miles: 10,503 Distribution circuit miles: 7,313 Transmission pole miles: 2,315 Mobile radios (electric and gas divisions): 2,050 Base stations(electric and gas divisions): 67 Cities served: 27