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January 22, 2012 at 12:55 PM

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To get the lights back on, some Puget Sound Energy crews work 40-hour shifts

For Puget Sound Energy, it's been the storm that won't stay down and the lines that won't stay up.

The storm, which has kept crews in the field continuously for more than five days, just keeps reinventing itself, shifting from snow to sleet to ice to wind -- and keeping some crews working 40-hour shifts.

Flash back to 4 a.m. Thursday morning, when things were looking relatively good. Though 160,000 customers had been out of power after the first heavy punch, crews had managed to whittle that down to just 15,000 customers.

Then the ice storm hit.

By late Thursday, that 15,000 had ballooned to 280,000 without power. PSE called in crews from seven states and British Columbia. With the ice storm causing more outages, some crews stayed in the field for 40 hours before taking a mandatory break.

The crews in the field have different jobs. An assessor might document the damage, followed by a tree crew that removes trees so line crews can come in later and restore the power.

All that takes a massive coordination effort, starting at the Redmond-based emergency operations center and trickling down through regional operations to temporary staging areas set up to provide the workers with food and a place to get their latest instructions.

"We have had crews continuously working since Tuesday of last week," Andy Wappler, a spokesman for the utility, said on Sunday.

The utility currently has 900 people in 250 crews in the field and about a thousand people, from interns to the CEO, working in the office and in the company's emergency operations center and call center, Wappler said.

The utility has been collaborating with the National Weather Service to try to anticipate those areas that might be hardest hit. On Sunday, the weather service gave the utility more bad news: high winds were likely to cause still more outages.

And Wappler, a meteorologist by training, has found himself a jack-of-all-trades as he helps advise the company on where the seemingly never-ending storm will hit next.

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