SUMMER conditions and local government restrictions have seen Western Power’s inspection helicopter in operation for another summer.
Power lines, supplying power to Geraldton, Albany and Kalgoorlie, weave their way through regional areas and farm land across the State.
Western Power’s transmission line crew team leader Milan Damjanovic said they were responsible for line maintenance across the South West and Metro area.
This year specially-trained fault crews will fly thousands of kilometres, criss-crossing bush and farmland in search of faults that are inaccessible by vehicle due to restrictions.
Western Power’s head of Regional South Operations, Jeffery Spinner said, “last year we flew over 170 hours checking for damage following outages, so we could restore power as safely and quickly as possible”.
Over the summer months bushfires also risk the equipment and structure that Western Power uses to supply towns, regions and cities with power.
After a bushfire has burnt through, it can be unsafe to access bush lands or power poles, however the helicopter can assess the extent of the damage and how to go about fixing the issue.
After the trip has been identified, the spotter has the responsibility of relaying information back to head office with the safest and fastest routes to a discovered fault.
The biggest issue Western Power faces over the bushfire season and the summer months is restriction and access to areas.
Mr Damjanovic said there were restrictions on ground patrolling, as they couldn’t send vehicles into dry and grass-filled paddocks that may cause bushfires when there were local restrictions in place.
“We have local fire ban restrictions from DFES and local government restrictions in place where the ground crew dispatch can be difficult and time consuming,” he said.
“So we engage the helicopter and the spotter so they can patrol the lines.”
Helicopters are able to fly without the restrictions relevant to ground crews, also the service provides a quicker response time with the speed helicopters travel to the affected areas.
“It’s almost essential for us to be able to respond in a timely manner,” Mr Damjanovic said.
“Especially in regional areas, to get a crew out there can take hours and then we have the restrictions that may be in place on the day.”
In some circumstances ground crews cannot enter an area until they have clearance from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) and local shires.
Using a helicopter means that faults are relayed back qickly and the office can get the correct clearances to mobilise a crew to enter where the fault is discovered.
When movement bans are put in place by local shires it’s impossible for Western Power to inspect a line from the ground as they can’t be driving around in the conditions.
“Our lines go across regional areas where you are going through farmland, tall grassed areas and some uneven terrain where it’s difficult to access and time consuming,” Mr Damjanovic said.
“With our aerial patrols it cuts that time down dramatically.”
Aerial spotters are trained to observe the smallest of faults from a distance, with many faults caused by storm damage or accidents this time of year.
Western Power has 20 people who are trained for this and have been successfully spotting faults over the summer months.
There are permits in place that allow Western Power to mobilise a crew, although approval is still required when entering movement and fire restricted areas.
Common faults that Western Power sees this time of the year include fallen trees and storm damage, vehicle accidents, pole top fires due to heat and other incidents that occur at random.
Heliwest currently has a pilot and crew on standby for when a fault is reported so they can dispatch a helicopter within the hour and assess the fault as soon as possible.
Heliwest owner and chief executive officer Alan Bailey said flying that close to power lines was very demanding on the pilot and they need to be highly experienced.
Each pilot requires a minimum of 2000 hour of flying with 100 hours of power line experience.
The Heliwest chopper can be flying as low as the power line, meaning they are flying at a height around nine metres.
“Most of our crew and pilots have more than the required experience, we have 11 Western Power trained pilots who have completed the approved power lines course and flying in the wire environment,” Mr Bailey said.
“A wire strike would be the worst thing that could happen to our pilots, although we mitigate that by training the crews in the environment and we have wire strike protection systems fitted to the aircraft.”
Some areas of the Western Power network are prone to nasty weather during summer although rural areas and farm land demonstrates other challenges for the company.
“There are a number of challenges that we face with the regional/ag customers outside of the power line inspections,” said Western Power’s media specialist Paul Entwistle.
Common issues Western Power plan on targeting to reduce the risk of outages this year include; access issues to properties and outdated farm details, farm equipment coming into contact with overhead power lines, and burning stubble impacting the quality of power poles.
With the increasing size of machinery and people locking properties for shed safety, Western Power has found rural maintenance and inspection a lot easier with a helicopter.
Western Power urges people to be careful when moving large machinery under power lines and to update them of any new contact information.
As straw lays in the paddocks Mr Entwistle said he hoped farmers did the best they can at burning time not to damage any poles that may be in the stubble.