Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Effective use of the Incident Command System is crucial in times of crisis

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When different utility and emergency crews converge to repair damage from severe storms or hurricanes it helps if they speak a common language — even if it is not necessarily plain English:

“The IMT working in the EOC is producing the IAP.”

Ann Steeves, an emergency management consultant, translates for us: “The incident management team working in the emergency operations center is producing the incident action plan for the upcoming operational period.”

All industries have their jargon, so it is no surprise that the emergency response business has its own specialized language and protocols. Steeves’ language comes from a nationally standardized emergency response template called the Incident Command System (ICS). Behind the words lies a simple truth particularly relevant to utilities, according to Steeves, who serves as CEO of HC-EMI.

“Regardless of culture, when we are responding in mutual assistance with one another — to a Sandy, to a Harvey, to an Irma, to a Maria like in Puerto Rico — if we’re all using ICS we’re all in the same system, and that helps us just plug and play,” she said. “State and local government, as well as municipalities, are adopting the ICS structure.  Public power utilities are also adopting ICS, although many tend to activate ICS for storm response only – when the structure can be used for everything from a data breach to a terrorist attack.”

ICS was developed in response to the many deaths and massive property damage caused by wildfires in the western U.S. in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Studies found that rather than a lack of resources or a failure of tactics, ineffective disaster response was more often due to communication and deficiencies in organizational structure.

ICS has since been incorporated as part of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. NIMS is a comprehensive national approach to incident management that is applicable at all jurisdictional levels and across functional disciplines where federal funding is involved.

The ICS directs, controls, and coordinates emergency response within a command hierarchy and across multiple jurisdictions when needed. FEMA notes that ICS shares common traits across industries:

  • Uses a management system designed for small or large emergency or non-emergency situations including planned events, natural disasters, and acts of terrorism;
  • Integrates a combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications operating within a common organizational structure using national best practices; and
  • Unifies activities in several areas: command, operations, planning, logistics, intelligence & investigations, finance and administration

Electric utilities began adopting ICS in earnest on the East Coast following Superstorm Sandy in 2012. FEMA outlined four key action items the agency planned to achieve following Sandy. Two of the items addressed the need to achieve a unity of effort by local communities and the federal government in responding to storms and disasters.

Steeves, a former utility emergency manager and current utility ICS Instructor, underscored the need for the unity of effort ICS brings both to emergency response and daily operations. A utility runs on humans, technology, connectivity, safety, and information, she said.

“All ICS does is standardize a way to utilize and incorporate all the elements an organization is already using -- but strengthens it. When you have to flip from business as usual to business unusual, the goal is to get back to business-as-usual sooner rather than later,” she said. “Gearing up for ICS takes some planning – and culturizing through the organization. Bringing in outside help provides a fresh perspective and can help utilities adopt ICS faster.”

ICS should be used on a daily basis, she said, so that organizations can stay on top of incidents – from something as simple as a car hitting a pole to a massive hurricane. “If you use the ICS across the organization, enterprise wide, then no matter what happens you have a common response procedure.”

ICS is especially useful when interdisciplinary crews from multiple geographic areas converge for storm mitigation. All incident responders — utility, fire department or police — can share a common language and protocols to tackle the emergency as a united team, all executing from the same playbook.

Rudy Garza, senior vice president of distribution services and operations at San Antonio, Texas-based public power utility CPS Energy, has been through it all. In his role at CPS Energy, Garza has had to oversee the utility’s response to many severe storms.

“An ICS system is the heart of how you respond to the needs of your system in times of distress, whether it’s a normal midlevel storm or five tornadoes rip[ping] through San Antonio on a given evening. Having a plan and knowing who’s in charge and who is responsible for doing what is a critical part of our capability to restore service in as quickly and safely a manner as possible,” he said.

According to Garza, ICS establishes a very clear chain of command for decision-making, and improves communications to both employees and customers.

“Without a very clear ICS plan you have individuals acting based on their specific responsibilities but inevitably there will be gaps in handoffs,” Garza said. “One incident may go great and the next incident may be completely the opposite because not having a plan prevents you from consistently approaching times of stress.”

How quickly and efficiently utilities restore power depends on the effectiveness of their emergency management operations.

For Garza, ICS success falls into place when all units are communicating properly. “The key to being able to really focus on work is having everybody on the same page. Typically, when a safety incident arises or you’re delayed in restoring power, it’s probably going to be because you have a gap in how you internally communicate what is going on in real time,” he said.

Communication has to be seamless across the organization. ICS leaders responsible for managing the overall response have to know what’s going on at any given time, and the crews have to get everything they need when they need it to be able to restore power, according to Garza. “That communication has to be vertical and horizontal and consistent as events are happening,” he said.

That is why the move by utilities from a “paper and pencil” ICS to a computerized program is so important. Some utilities are deploying the structure, but they’re using manual methods to collect and disseminate data to make decisions. Automating these processes ensures real-time, more accurate data which can be acted upon to ultimately respond faster to all types of emergencies.

ARCOS provides an automated crew callout and resource management software system. The system finds, assembles, tracks and records the activity of repair crews. The company will soon roll out new ICS management software for utilities that it expects will fill the gaps existing in current products on the market.

“We address the question: ‘What is your incident command structure and how do you operationalize it to restore power?” said Lisa Steinhart, vice president of Marketing for ARCOS. “We’re helping to automate manual processes that today reduce overall response efficiency and open utilities up to risk. We’ve included the mobile aspect of today’s workflows that the market can no longer ignore. Responders, whether they’re your employees or contractors, need to be able to work from any device, anywhere, anytime – and we’ve addressed that.” 

For example, while ICS computer programs are fairly common for the industry, ARCOS found a deficit in historical routing and documentation throughout the course of an incident or series of incidents. ARCOS wanted to archive what documents – for example, outage documentation, crew staffing and assignment, tree cutting and repair schedule – have gone out, when and to whom?

“Templates are created prior to an incident to give a utility a head start on activating the Incident Management Team (IMT),” said Matt Mikula, ARCOS product director. “During activation the system automates the process of assigning and confirming employees to the team, saving what could be hours of time. We’ll then route the appropriate documents to the right employees, so everyone is on the same page as to the roles, responsibilities they play – and what information they are expected to gather. Gathering standardized documents is  critical, so utilities can assess real-time information and act on it.”

Mobilizing quickly during an event is as important as managing demobilization. Every version of a ramp (up or down) document is archived so it can be audited — when it went, whom it went to, etc. — when needed.

“Resource Management is about activating resources, mobilizing those resources, tracking the resources and now documenting what’s been done with those resources,” said Steinhart, “regardless of the type of incident you’re dealing with.”

As utilities move from pencil and paper to computerization with ARCOS, mobile and cell phone apps will connect field operations to the ICS command structure. This will allow incident managers to engage in real-time decision-making with ICS teams.

“ICS for utilities will become a standard in the not too distant future. ARCOS is definitely taking the utilities in the right direction with ARCOS Incident Manager and is really providing a place for the whole incident management team to manage any emergency they might face,” Steeves said.

For more information about ARCOS and its product offerings, visit the company’s website.