Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Disasters don’t take a break, neither should preparedness

I don’t know about you, but our mutual aid team breathes a big sigh of relief on December 1 — the “official” end to the Atlantic hurricane season. While there truly is no “disaster-free” time, this time of year is usually a good time to step back and reflect on your utility’s preparedness policies and practices.

The first hurdle is simply knowing where to start. Here are three ways you can set your utility up for greater preparedness to any events you might face in 2020.

Refresh (or establish) your emergency plans

By nature of their definition, emergencies are impossible to predict and can include any number of situations. However, often the basic functions a utility needs to respond are relatively similar from one event to the next. Planning from this perspective is called an all-hazards approach. By following the all-hazards approach your utility can focus on improvement holistically.

A preparedness program creates a system that identifies and mitigates risk, establishes consistent yet adaptable processes, and builds on your utility’s capabilities. As a jumping off point for your utility to create or expand its preparedness program, you can peruse our All Hazards Guidebook, which we developed through funds from the Department of Energy. The guidebook walks readers through a five-step preparedness cycle, offers best practices and strategies for public power for each step, and outlines a variety of helpful emergency planning resources. Now is a good time of year to walk through the guide and identify where your preparedness needs to be spruced up – whether by refreshing your plan, redefining critical response roles, or evaluating your program for continuous improvement. 

Create an exercise routine

An important piece to the preparedness cycle is training and exercise. There are many reasons why you should conduct regular preparedness exercises — new risks are always on the horizon, technology changes, and so does your workforce. Conducting exercises helps you to continually look into how to mitigate the effects of emergencies on your organization.

Your organization likely responds to multiple emergencies a year, and every incident offers lessons learned. Exercising gives you the chance to collaborate within your utility and find solutions.

An exercise can be anything from a discussion where you review the plans you have in place, to a full-scale operations-based exercise, where participants interact to a scenario. When planning your exercise, it is important to remember that responsibilities are shared across your organization to include all from line employees to leadership at your utility.

If you’re looking to get in the routine of exercising, we’ve created a tabletop in a box toolkit, funded by the Department of Energy, that will easily allow for you to tailor an exercise to your utility. The main goal of a tabletop exercise is to practice responding to an emergency in a non-emergency environment. This will allow the participants to notice, discuss, and work out any kinks in the emergency management plan before it is needed. A tabletop exercise might help bring to light any misunderstandings or need for adjustments to the plan. Tabletop exercises also allow participants to collaborate, which can help develop relationships between departments and individuals whom might not work together on a day-to-day basis.

The toolkit has six scenarios for you to choose from, including three new scenarios on responding to a cybersecurity incident, wildfire, and active threat/shooter. These are in addition to scenarios that have previously been available on responding to a winter storm, flooding, and tornado. The toolkit also includes template materials and walks you through how to set up the scenario, facilitate the exercise, and conduct the debrief.

Exercise with your peers

Your utility doesn’t work alone, especially in the wake of natural disasters and other major events where you might either receive or offer mutual aid. That’s why each year the Association holds a regional mutual aid exercise to practice the response capabilities of our Mutual Aid Working Group during different types of events. The exercise gives participants the chance to interact with network coordinators, clarify everyone’s roles and responsibilities, as well as take a deeper look into the tools to coordinate responses. We held this year’s exercise in October, which was based on a hurricane that impacted the east coast in 1960.

Our government partners also host several exercises that are open for your participation, such as FEMA’s National Level Exercise and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s grid security exercise (aka GridEx). GridEx is the largest electricity subsector-specific exercise, where utilities respond and recover from a simulated coordinated cyber and physical security threats. GridEx occurs every two years and this year saw the largest participation from public power utilities to date. The next GridEx will take place in 2021, so there is plenty of time for you to get prepared for the next event.

Keep it going and let us be your resource

Preparedness is not a one-time event and you’ll need to keep evaluating and improving the plans your utility has in place and rethink what can affect your utility. Every time you exercise, you should be better prepared to respond when there is a real-life emergency. Look for the latest suite of reports, programs, and services to prepare public power utilities for incidents on our Disaster Response page.