Powering Strong Communities
Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Better Help: How the Mutual Aid Network Keeps Improving

Based on an interview with Neil James, director of distribution engineering and operations at Santee Cooper in South Carolina. James is the chair for the American Public Power Association’s Mutual Aid Committee.

The public power Mutual Aid Network has been around informally since 1999 and has deployed countless utility crews to help restore power to electric systems damaged by storms and other major events. The network adopted a more formal structure and policies in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

The spirit behind the network is that, as public power utilities, we are all sister utilities striving to serve our respective customers. When one utility is in need, we all feel a responsibility to assist. Our product, electrical power, is an essential service no one can live without, and the satisfaction we receive from restoring that service and assisting others in their time of need is hard to put into words. It’s gratifying to say the least. Everyone in public power is committed to serving and assisting others.  

Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of experience over the last couple of years. Since 2020, the network has been activated numerous times, for events ranging from hurricanes to ice storms, typhoons, and tornadoes.

With each activation, we’ve gotten better. As the Mutual Aid Network has grown, so has our understanding of how we best work together. We better understand the importance of planning, communicating, coordination, pre-staging, material/resource sharing, and the logistical requirements for both the receiving and responding utilities.

We designated individuals as state coordinators for easier identification of who to reach out to during an activation. We also improved our decision-making process on whether an event can be handled at the local, state, or national level. This is important, as we want to make sure the network uses the crews that are nearest to the affected area, thus reducing the overall outage window.

Depending on the event, matching and dispatching responding crews to requesting utilities can happen in hours or, for larger-scale events, days. Usually, the state coordinator plays a key role in matching crews. Once an event cascades beyond the local utility or state, our Mutual Aid Committee organizes a regional or national call for assistance where the needs are made known and the available resources are volunteered. For events where the impacted area and timing can be forecast, such as hurricanes, crews can be pre-staged in safe but nearby areas.

Understanding the needs of the requesting utility and the available resources from the responding utility is the first step. Equally important is knowing the type of working conditions, voltage levels, environmental conditions, special equipment needs, and other logistical requirements such as travel time, reporting location, and lodging requirements. Being a part of the network is about making it easier to communicate these needs on both sides. And communication can happen more smoothly when there is already a connection.  

While we respond to emergencies year-round, the most frequent major events are in the summer and fall. We have thus timed our training sessions to occur prior to this peak season, which helps to better form the connections across the network that will remain in place all year.  

We continue to share our story at the American Public Power Association’s conferences and within industry-focused publications so that everyone in public power — and even more broadly into the utility sector — is aware of the Mutual Aid Network and how to contact someone when in need.  

Even though we feel we have a good process, there is always room to improve. During the annual Mutual Aid Committee meetings, we discuss the most recent activations and lessons learned, and we conduct a review of our Mutual Aid Playbook to streamline or improve where possible. Our biggest opportunity is in further extending the program to all public power providers. Everyone’s feedback is essential for improvement. Looking across the country, there are still gaps where we need more public power utilities to get involved. We’re looking at how the state coordinators can do more outreach to engage with the right people at these utilities and determine what might be keeping them from signing on. All public power utilities can participate as either a requestor or responding utility. Participating in the network is free.

As an industry, we stand ready to assist all our fellow members in times of need. Learn more about the Mutual Aid Network and process.