Do Second Roles Really Work?

A successful restoration event requires the best efforts of an assortment of company resources – not just the field personnel. Of course, don’t try telling that to a lineman, because we know what the answer would be: “Just get those office / engineering people out of my way”.

Of course, 90% of the time there are enough people to handle outage restoration. But for the other 10% of the time, the normal resources are stretched thin, worn out, and overworked.  And you know what happens then.

Since utilities can’t permanently staff for that 10% occurrence, how do you handle it?

Some companies operate under the philosophy that every employee has an emergency role, sometimes called second roles or storm jobs. For some, their emergency job is the same as their everyday job – line personnel, customer service personnel, field engineering, etc.  But many times, second roles are very different from what employees do on a day-to-day basis.

Some companies don’t utilize all their available second roles in emergency situations, or even expect them to pitch in. Why is that?

Maybe it’s the silos.  Some organizations just don’t share resources well across business units.  Sometimes it’s individual resistance: “That’s not what I signed up for when I joined the (finance / legal / accounting / staff engineering – pick one) department. It’s not my job.”

On the other hand, employees with second roles themselves can have legitimate concerns:

  • “You know, they trained me once a few years ago, but I haven’t really been involved since then.”
  • “How do I find out what I’m supposed to do?”
  • “Who am I supposed to be working with?  Who am I working for?  I’ve never met any of these people.”
  • “You want me to go where?  What’s this ‘Storm Room’ they keep talking about?
  • “I’d like to help, but I really don’t think I have the skill to do what they’re asking me to do.”
  • “Just how do I fit in the plan here?”

In other words, employees with second roles may be willing, but the system might be weak.  Inadequate training; insufficient job aids; exercises that don’t give those with second roles enough practice or opportunities to build relationships prior to “The Real Thing” – none of this adds up to a promising plan for handling intense or extended crises.

As a result, breakdowns become self-fulfilling prophesies.  Operations personnel come to assume that no one else but they can do their jobs.  So when second role employees show up unskilled, ill-equipped and asking a lot of questions, the prediction comes true. There isn’t time during a storm restoration event to babysit and train the outsider who has shown up to help.

So why are operations people reluctant to accept help from ‘outside’ personnel?

  • Takes too long to stop and show these second role folks what to do, and how to do it, in the heat of the battle.
  • Operations people feel that it reflects negatively upon them if the job isn’t done right, and they don’t have trust.
  • Sometimes, it’s just misguided professional pride.  “We can handle even the toughest situations.”

Yet it doesn’t take much to trigger the need for second roles. A snow storm in October, a hurricane hitting the Northeast, one of those 96 hour marathon ice storms – a few good second role assignments every now and then could make a difference.

Exclude employees with second roles from your emergency plan at your peril. The process does work – it just requires the same planning and maintenance that all infrequently used systems do.

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