FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — When disaster strikes, Soldiers and civilian engineers assigned to the 249th Engineering Battalion, part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, stand ready to provide critical support to those in need.
“Whether it’s a hurricane, ice storm, earthquake, or tsunami, or whatever it is, we are called to help people who are affected in a disaster zone,” said Sgt. 1st Class Mark Verry, an instructor with the U.S. Army Prime Power School here.
Most recently, the 249th was mobilized to restore power to the 3.4 million residents in Puerto Rico. Last September, Hurricane Maria devastated the island and since then, personnel with the Army Corps of Engineers, including the 249th, have been working diligently to improve living conditions within the region.
Power is key to enabling other elements of disaster relief, such as security, debris and waste removal, and freshwater purification, distribution, and storage, to name a few, said Col. Martin D. Snider, commander of the 1st Engineer Brigade.
The 249th is comprised of four “Prime Power” line companies. Each line company has six platoons capable of producing approximately 3 megawatts of power, which could potentially power up to 3,000 homes.
Prime Power Soldiers are the “go-to guys” for the Army, Department of Defense, and Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Response Framework, said Staff Sgt. Russell Gaskin, a Prime Power instructor.
“We bring municipal power solutions, no matter how big the grid. It could be one building, or it could be a neighborhood. It could be a forward operating base downrange, or a dam, or some form of pre-existing production infrastructure,” Gaskin said.
BUILDING THE FUTURE OF PRIME POWER
Training and developing the future of the Prime Power career field takes time, according to Gaskin. The grueling year-long Prime Power course teaches Soldiers how to deploy, install, operate, and maintain power generation and distribution assets in support of theater commanders or the DOD.
“It’s been said that 12Ps are professional problem solvers,” said James Fisher, an instructor and retired Prime Power Soldier.
Soldiers start with the basics of math, algebra, and physics, then move into generators and power plant operations, Gaskin said.
Training also includes the theory and installation fundamentals of all Prime Power components, such as overhead and underground distribution assets and switchgear, diesel engines and turbine engines. Furthermore, Soldiers also learn to test and maintain each element properly.
Prime Power engineers bring proven power generation capabilities, capable of transmitting electricity over long distances whenever and wherever it is needed, Fisher added. When Prime Power is not involved, installations tend to rely more on small generators to power tents throughout their areas of responsibility — and that can mean an inefficient use of fuel.
“We can be in the rear and send all the power forward,” Fisher said. “We cut fuel exponentially when we set up a power plant. And when a plant is operating, we can turn our generators off and turn on the grid.
“Prime Power is the best job in the Army because you’re truly making a difference,” he said.
Due to its complex curriculum and the lengthy training requirement, initial entry Soldiers are not eligible to apply for the Prime Power career field. Eligible Soldiers must be in the grade of specialist or sergeant and are subject to their original career field requirements to qualify for reclassification.
To retrain into the Primer Power career field, Soldiers must meet the minimum qualifications: a general technical score of 110 on their Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, technical and electrical scores of 107, completion of high school-level algebra and a 70 percent on the basic math and science tests.
Furthermore, Soldiers must be a Basic Officer Leaders Course graduate and have completed a minimum of 24 months of active duty service before their class start date.
Students must successfully complete the demanding two-phase training course to qualify for the 12P MOS. Upon completion of the base course, students are assigned one of three Prime Power additional skill identifiers: instrumentation specialist, mechanical specialist, or electrical specialist.
Soldiers tagged with the instrumentation specialist additional skill identifier have the skills, knowledge, and techniques necessary to safely perform instrumentation critical tasks in troubleshooting, testing, maintenance, and repair of instrumentation systems and components used on electrical power generation and distribution equipment.
“Our job is to make sure that power gets to you reliably, all the time, and that if there is a problem, we minimize the amount of downtime and then minimize the number of people who lose power,” Verry said. “My responsibility as instrumentation technician is to maintain, program, and design those types of power systems to ensure that happens.”
Verry enlisted in the Army as a nutrition care specialist and then reclassified into a 12P position in 2010. Since retraining, Verry has deployed twice where he assisted in the construction, maintenance, and repair of power plants and power distribution grids in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“While deployed, we sent several hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment around to different bases,” Verry said. “A lot of work went into understanding our higher command’s mission. We needed to know where the Soldiers were going to be, to make sure that we could provide the power necessary to maintain the mission.”
With years of experience under his belt, Verry jumped at the opportunity to return to Fort Leonard Wood as an instructor.
“It is a great opportunity to share my experience with the new Prime Power Soldiers,” Verry said. “I ensure that they get all the knowledge, skills, and expertise that they need so they can go out and accomplish any mission that’s thrown at them. Whether it’s disaster response, taking care of contracts, or installing power plants.”
While instrumental specialists are focused more on the components used during power generation and distribution, mechanical specialists are dedicated to the raw production of power.
“My specialty is the mechanical side of the power generation picture; I manage Prime Power movers, or whatever turns an alternator to produce power. This is typically an engine or turbine,” Gaskin said.
Personnel working under the Prime Power mechanical specialty are trained to maintain, troubleshoot, and rebuild a wide variety of mechanical system components, like two- and four-stroke diesel engines.
Moreover, mechanical specialists also learn about fluid handling systems, like piping systems, air compressors and pumps, and must become proficient in welding and power tools.
Like the rest of the Army, readiness is key to the Prime Power career field. When disasters strike, 12Ps will need to gather all their applicable gear and deploy at a moment’s notice.
“You never know what part of the globe you’re going to be called to support,” Gaskin said. “It could be a high-threat area. A Soldier’s mind and body need to be physically and mentally ready to take on whatever environment they are called to operate within.”
Gaskin recalled a similar situation while he was working with the 249th, Company C, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. At the time, a missile defense facility in Eastern Europe lost power, and the U.S. Navy requested support.
“They needed power, so we spun up our power generation and supplemental equipment, and within two weeks, we hopped on a C-17 and hit the ground running,” he said. “We had power up within two days of arriving. We maintained power for almost five months so that they could stay on schedule with their project.
“I’m actually proud of that work because it was impactful. That is what we do. I feel the world’s a safer place because of that mission right there.”
Last but not least, the electrical specialty unifies the mechanical and instrumental components, completing the Prime Power triad.
Throughout the electrical specialty course, a student learns about circuit rules and calculations and how to operate test equipment for troubleshooting circuits. Additionally, they are taught standardization through the National Electrical Code in conjunction with other electrical related tasks.
“Simply put, all the wires between all the boxes or between the components is the Prime Power electrician’s range,” Fisher said. “On top of that, all the power distribution equipment, like all the power lines outside or buried in substations, is also an electrician’s job.”
During disaster relief, 12Ps are responsible for all the distribution between substations, substation maintenance, and getting power to each component, and all 12Ps are trained to install the power plant and run the initial cables, Fisher said.
“But if that power plant breaks or needs a complete electrical service, that’s where a Prime Power Electrical Specialty technician comes in,” Fisher said. “They verify which wires go to which components and check to see if everything is working.”
(Editor’s note: In support of Army Engineer Week, this is the third story of a four-part series about Army engineers and their profession.)
Pictured above: Jitu Whitehead, a lineman from the 249 Engineer Battalion (Prime Power), repairs a distribution line. Prime Power engineers bring proven power generation capabilities, capable of transmitting electricity over long distances whenever and wherever it is needed.