In 1922, Edith Clarke became the first woman to be professionally employed as an electrical engineer in the United States. Nearly 100 years later, about 15 percent of the electrical engineers in the U.S. workplace are female. Laura Strowbridge, Senior Electric Utility Professional for AEGIS, is part of that group. Here she shares how AEGIS, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, continues to advance safety with a focus on innovation and collaboration with the electric power community.
What brought you to the electric utility industry, which is often overlooked by women as a career path?
As someone who has always had a strong interest in math and physics, I was drawn to electrical engineering because it allowed me to apply those theoretical concepts to practical situations. As an engineering student at Virginia Tech, I was fortunate to take several courses in electric power systems that captured my interest. I decided to pursue a concentration in power engineering; at that time I was one of only nine electrical engineering students in the program. Once I graduated, I knew I wanted to start my engineering career working in the electric utility industry.
How have your personal experiences guided and influenced your career choices and responsibilities?
I learned about the importance of hard work and responsibility from my parents. My mother is from Ireland, and as a teenager I spent several summers on my grandparents' farm there. Looking back, that experience instilled a sense of independence, pride and determination that I've carried with me. Years later, after I graduated from Virginia Tech, I was determined to work in the electric utility field, even if it meant moving to a city I'd never heard of before. My first job was in Rochester, New York, and 30-plus years later I still live here. I learned early on that when you work for a utility, you feel connected to the community. And although I've changed jobs, I still live in Rochester and feel a deep connection to the community.
Tell us about your professional experience prior to joining AEGIS. It seems tailor-made for a job where you provide an objective review of operating procedures and practices to help member companies improve safety for the public and employees.
As a young distribution engineer, I recognized how important it was to have a good relationship with the field crews, learn from their deep knowledge, and appreciate the challenges of constructing and operating the electric system. I went on to many different roles in T&D engineering and got to work with some great engineering mentors, all of which prepared me for my current role at AEGIS. When I was VP of engineering at Energy East, AEGIS Loss Control conducted an electric risk assessment and I was the executive sponsor along with the VP of electric operations. I was immediately impressed by the depth of knowledge AEGIS brought to the table. By joining AEGIS, I was able to leverage nearly two decades of electric utility experience to support our members.
Specifically, what drew you to your role as a Senior Electric Utility Professional?
This job gives me the opportunity to build on my career in electric power engineering in a meaningful way. I feel strongly that our work in loss control helps raise the bar on the industry's mission to provide safe, reliable energy to the communities our members serve. For me, the work we get to do is very rewarding.
AEGIS has a long history and a unique view across the industry, enhanced by employees like you who come from the electric utility side. How does AEGIS help members connect the dots when they look at their construction, engineering, inspection and maintenance practices from a public safety perspective?
Because of my prior work in the industry, I know firsthand that utility employees have a lot of competing priorities, such as system reliability, regulatory compliance, asset management, budgets and scheduling. While safety is a primary concern at every utility I visit, the risk assessment is an opportunity to really focus on how day-to-day activities impact public safety. From specifying materials or issuing a work order to trimming trees or deciding whether to replace a pole, our risk assessment process puts a spotlight on all the steps that can impact the safety of both the public and utility employees.
When conducting risk assessments, senior loss control staff members from AEGIS can meet with two to three subject matter experts or even a team of 40 people over the course of several days. How can the perceptions at the initial meeting change over the course of the assessment?
I've been conducting risk assessments for eleven years, and I always notice a transformation of people's attitudes over the course of the assessment. At the opening meeting, the subject matter experts come in and are prepared to provide the information we've requested. But folks who haven't been through an AEGIS risk assessment before come in with fairly low expectations about the value of meeting with the "insurance company." However, once we get into the detailed questions, and later when we go in the field, the employees let their guard down, and they're eager to talk about their work and learn about what we see across the industry. As the assessment progresses, often the person who pushed back most in the beginning is the biggest advocate for what we've collectively accomplished when the assessment is complete.
How have electric risk assessments changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the remote and virtual aspects?
When the pandemic hit and we could not be onsite at member companies, we found ways to conduct assessments virtually. We've actually been able to do 95 percent of what we do in person through videoconferencing and other technology. The one part of our risk assessment that has been challenging is the field observations. In the past, we would spend several hours observing the utility's substations, lines and equipment. Now that we're virtual, we've found new ways to assess the same elements. For example, we've used video sharing applications with the utility inspectors in the field, we've had the utility provide pictures and aerial imagery for us to review, and we've conducted additional "records reviews" of specific programs to understand how they're being executed and to verify that the company's standards and procedures are being followed. Whether assessments are conducted in person or virtually, the most important thing about safety remains the same – it's not just about having good plans and procedures, it's essential to follow company procedures and remain vigilent.
How do the risk assessments help identify the topics of critical interest to AEGIS members?
In the course of conducting risk assessments, members tell us what's on their minds and even what keeps them up at night. Often these concerns and trends become the subject of our monthly webinars or other products and services. For example, several months ago, I hosted a webinar called 5G Deployment: Managing Requests for Small Cell Attachments. The FCC has adopted sweeping pole attachment orders to accelerate the widespread and swift deployment of small cell wireless broadband facilities. As a result, utilities are facing increasingly complex issues as they manage an unprecedented number of attachment requests. It was an interactive webinar, with lots of great questions and information sharing to help our members with this evolving issue.
Can you provide more details about how AEGIS, unlike a regulatory agency, treats its relationships as partnerships and how, instead of mandating changes, it offers suggestions it develops in cooperation with member companies?
At our kickoff meetings, we make it clear that our "assessments" are not "audits" like those done by other entities, such as state and federal regulators. Unlike a formal regulatory process that often causes members to put up their guard, we treat our risk assessments as a partnership. Our goal is to collaborate with the utility, identify opportunities and offer suggestions. We spend time making sure members understand our suggestions and how they can help solve a problem or reduce risk.
What are you most proud to be a part of at AEGIS?
I am deeply proud of the difference we make in the industry. We are continuously visiting electric utility operations on a three-year cycle. At this point, they know me and understand what we want to acomplish together through the assessments. Members recognize that we're working together to raise the bar on public safety and share what AEGIS has learned with the industry.
You say that the "people I meet" are what you like most about your job. Tell us about the people you meet.
I go everywhere in the country, from remote areas to large cities. Regardless of where they're located, I find utility folks are very dedicated, conscientious and like to talk about their work. They feel a sense of ownership when they build a system, operate it and restore it because that system feeds their community. When outages occur and storms wreak havoc on the electric system, utility employees rise to the occasion. It's truly impressive how they work together to restore the safety and reliability of the system. It's not just after storms; even on a blue sky day, utility employees design and build the electric system to a very high standard.
When you look ahead, what are some ideas you'd like to bring to members?
AEGIS can provide member companies with virtual or remote services whenever it's not possible or practical to gather in person. Whether we're working under the limitations of the pandemic or looking for an alternative to extensive travel for participants, we can work together virtually. For example, we can make remote presentations or provide virtual tools for our members' safety summits and tailboard meetings. I mean, we are in a time during the pandemic when utility workers can't ride in a vehicle with their crew members or even pass around a pen during a tailboard meeting. Going forward, we can provide virtual tools to push out fresh information and support new ways of getting work done.
What trends do you see in how electric risk assessments are being conducted during the pandemic that may remain when the pandemic is over?
Improving our use of virtual tools has enabled us to reach a larger audience and become more flexible in how we engage our members. We can definitely leverage what we've learned in the future. But there is still value in getting back out there and physically being able to look at the electric system and have in-person discussions. We're not sure what the "new normal" will look like for our member utilities, so I think a hybrid approach is likely. It's a new way of doing business, with a blend of virtual and face-to-face interaction.