Eileen DePaoli woke up yesterday morning planning to finish her holiday baking in time for Christmas dinner at her brother's. But when she went into the kitchen of her King of Prussia townhouse, she realized she faced a holiday headache instead.

The heater was making odd sounds. The refrigerator was running intermittently. The coffee maker didn't seem to work at all.

Less than six hours later, Peco Energy technician Jerry Newland had the power restored, and DePaoli was back to her celebrations.

Christmas is a holiday for most Americans, whether they observe it religiously or just enjoy the day off. But for many who deliver essential services, it's just another day - perhaps even more hectic than most, as workplaces try to manage with shorter staffs to accommodate those who want the holiday off.

Peco officials said the utility - which provides electricity or both power and gas to 1.6 million customers in Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs - had about 70 employees scheduled for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, far fewer than normal.

To cover its bases, Peco keeps a larger contingent on call - off-duty, but close enough to respond if conditions change.

"If we need more help, everybody's a phone call away," said Charles Crumbley, one of two shift managers on duty yesterday at the utility's Plymouth Meeting operations center. "We tell them, 'You need to be here within an hour if we need you.' "

Crumbley and comanager Al Brandt oversaw a crew of dispatchers who monitor the electric and gas system electronically and respond to emergency reports phoned into Peco's call center.

Earlier this week, the utility had been pressed by rainy and then bitterly cold weather. Thankfully, yesterday dawned with a mild breeze.

"We're weather-driven," said Newland, the energy technician who handled the King of Prussia call. "If it was 15 to 20 degrees colder today, we'd be a lot busier."

Water and ice are constant threats to the system. Water can damage underground electrical equipment and cables. Ice can do the same, as well as rupture gas lines and bring down trees onto power lines.

But even with mild weather, Peco was plenty busy. Just ask George Sey, a dispatcher who came in early on Christmas Eve and was still at work 15 hours later.

Sey was on duty just before midnight, when electronic monitors detected a failure at the Somerset Substation in Northeast Philadelphia, a 13,000-volt unit that serves about 4,500 customers, and then at the nearby Delaware Substation.

A senior dispatcher who handles substations had already sent a crew out. When an alarm sounded at his station, Sey radioed for help from technicians in the field known as "troublemen." Two were working the Christmas Eve midnight shift.

The failure cut off power to 4,148 customers. But within 31/2 hours, power had been restored to virtually all of them, thanks to a combination of automated switches that rerouted power from other nearby substations, and workers who did similar tasks manually with bucket trucks. The last customer was restored at 7:45 a.m.

As Peco has modernized, it has automated more and more aspects of emergency response. When a tree falls on a power line, for instance, it may now trip a circuit-breaker that will automatically reset within 15 seconds if no serious damage occurred.

Similar automation reduces the impact of problems at the hundreds of substations throughout the system by automatically rerouting power through undamaged circuits.

"Sometimes they'll just see a blip. It could be instantaneous," Brandt said.

Automated response helped minimize the impact of a failure reported about 7 a.m. yesterday in the 1700 block of Lombard Street. Nearly 2,500 customers were potentially affected, but only a handful called to report a problem.

Brandt said about half were restored automatically, and all but 100 were back on by 9:15 a.m. By 1:30 p.m., Peco crews had everybody's power back on.

For Peco employees such as Brandt, holiday work goes with the territory. Though some essential workers may be more visible, such as police officers, firefighters and hospital workers, they see their duty as no less vital, and try to laugh off the disruptions.

Last year, for instance, Brandt missed New Year's with his wife, even though his shift had officially ended hours earlier.

"You call your wife and say, 'Happy New Year. I'll be home around 2 a.m.' That's the nature of the beast - it's emergency response," Brandt said.

Crumbley, who started at Peco 23 years ago as a lineman, agreed: "Most of us appreciate what we do. We realize it's up to us to keep the lights on and the gas flowing."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.