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Oly power system tested

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Thursday could have been the most hectic day of Jerry Thomas' 18-year career with Utah Power, electricity provider for the Olympic Winter Games.

The senior dispatcher faced two exploded transformers ? one underneath the grandstands at Park City Mountain Resort, the other near the top of the slalom course at Deer Valley ? and a "dig in" on the main underground electric cable near Utah Olympic Park.

The subsequent power outages could have delayed Olympic events, potentially, for hours. At worst the bobsled run would have become a waterslide.

Yet Thomas' calm face and dry palms made it all seem like business as usual.

The composure could have something to do with Thomas' 18 years of experience, said Royden Mendenhall, a fellow dispatcher. However, it likely has more to do with the fact that none of those power outages actually took place.

It was only a test.

The third of three daylong Utah Power drills designed to test the company's ability to respond to crisis situations ended Thursday afternoon.

As the primary source of electricity for eight of the Games' 10 venues, the power supplier is anxious to prove to the public, and to itself, that its bases are covered. The eight drills, one for each venue, began Monday and have involved a range of circumstances from sabotage to a bus crash.

Perhaps the most ominous and comprehensive symbol of the day's counterfeit calamities was the gigantic system of flashing red and green lights covering the entire wall opposite Thomas' desk in Utah Power's Olympic Command and Control Center. The wall, eerily similar to the "Big Board" in the movie "Dr. Strangelove," is a schematic of Utah Power's entire electrical network, covering Utah, southern Idaho and western Wyoming.

On an ideal day, when all systems are go, the wall's 1,000-plus lights would be dark. On Thursday nearly all of them were lit up ? and most of them were blinking.

"There's definitely an intensity," said Mendenhall, who along with Thomas was happy to see conclusion of the tests.

"We live here," Mendenhall said.

It is a lifestyle the two will likely have to get used to. The command center will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the Games.

Terry Ray, Utah Power director of emergency preparedness, said the tests have helped his response team work out any remaining kinks in the chain of emergency response.

In each of Thursday's three tests, Ray said workers restored 95 percent of the venues' power within 15 minutes, quick enough to ensure successful completion of an Olympic event.

However, Ray said the real test is not restoring electricity to the venues, as each venue is equipped with its own back-up generator. Restoring power to those residents affected by the outage is the tougher challenge ? and also a bigger source of stress.

"There is a direct correlation," Thomas said. "The more people out of power the more stress we feel."

E-MAIL: joliver@desnews.com