Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Latest version of ESCC COVID-19 guide addresses mutual aid lessons learned, return to workplace

The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) has updated a resource guide it has developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest version includes updates to the mutual assistance\aid section based on lessons learned from recent storms as well as an executive summary of work underway with regards to responsible re-entry and return to the workplace.

The guide was updated with the input of the American Public Power Association and public power utilities. The seventh version of the guide was released on April 27.

The guide is a living document developed under the direction of the ESCC. It is being updated and distributed regularly by the ESCC Secretariat, based on input from several "Tiger Teams" of industry leaders who are tracking key issues related to this global health emergency.

Lessons learned

The guide notes that between March 28 and April 14, 2020, a series of severe storms impacted several investor-owned electric companies, electric cooperatives, and public power utilities across the country. These storms caused power outages from Texas to Oklahoma and Arkansas, through the deep South and Gulf states, across the Eastern seaboard, and into New England. Parts of New England also experienced a Nor’easter during this time frame.

The storms resulted in the first significant power outages and mutual assistance\aid response during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest iteration of the ESCC guide provided the following key lessons learned from these weather events:

The Mutual Assistance\Aid Response

  • Overall, the mutual assistance\aid response and restoration processes worked well during these storms. Organizations providing mutual assistance\aid used the ESCC COVID-19 protocols to ensure social distancing and proper hygiene and to keep employees, contractors, and customers as safe as possible.
  • COVID-19 safety procedures did not create significant delays in restoration efforts. In some cases, productivity gains occurred because crews were closer to work locations and materials and supplies were delivered or obtained from multiple, decentralized locations.
  • Decentralized distribution worked well, including using runners to distribute materials.
  • Large staging sites were not used.
  • PPE was brought by responding crews, but requesting organizations did supplement where needed.

Work Practices

  • Onboarding, briefings, work order distribution, and meetings were conducted successfully while maintaining distancing protocols. Organizations used electronic methods and communication tools, as well as steps such as meeting outside in small groups
  • The ESCC health screening questionnaire was used by organizations;
  • Some entities processed all off-system responders with touch-free temperature checks and health questionnaires;
  • Safety debriefs were conducted remotely via electronic tools, videos, etc. In some instances, DocuSign was used as proof of review, otherwise crew leaders were requested to collect written documentation.
  • Most organizations had one worker per vehicle.
  • Responding crews met requesting organizations’ representatives in decentralized locations such as parking lots for onboarding.
  • Work orders were issued using electronic tickets and were supported by decentralized planners. Some organizations assigned staging sites and work orders at lodging locations.
  • Damage assessment personnel were staged off-site or in vehicles to avoid contact with others. In some instances, deploying damage assessors was a challenge, as was developing precise estimated times of restorations.

Lodging, Meals, and Support Services

  • For the most part, hotel rooms were readily available except in the most rural locations. Responders were placed one person to a room. — However, in some locations where workers shared a vehicle, those workers were permitted to share a room.
  • Organizations should continue to engage closely with hotels, restaurants, and caterers to ensure their availability for future incidents.
  • For future responses, organizations should keep in mind that some hotels require a 3-day buffer in rooms between guest stays.
  • Organizations should consider using boxed meals to facilitate social distancing to avoid problems with restaurant closures. For future large-scale events, consider food trucks and caterers who can provide boxed meals. The number and storage capacity of meal delivery vehicles should be increased in order to deliver boxed meals, food storage containers, and coolers.
  • Portable bathrooms may be required in areas where public facilities are closed, especially in non-urban areas.
  • Organizations should identify high-traffic areas, like water dispensing locations, that can create social distancing challenges.

Challenges and Improvement Opportunities

  • It was a challenge to ensure crews kept social distancing at meal locations and while using elevators in hotels. Additional supervision/leadership may be needed for future responses.
  • Crews experienced somewhat more “windshield” time depending on where they stayed due to efforts to ensure lodging was one person per room and to keep crews and job sites segregated.
  • Additional vehicles were required to support restoration.
  • Due to decentralization, more local supervision/leadership, material runners, and logistics runners were needed to support the response.
  • Large-scale power outages can impact electric industry employees who are teleworking and may need to support mutual assistance\aid. Consider having alternate work locations and assessments of employees’ ability to work during outages.
  • Similarly, large-scale outages can impact the availability of lodging and meal facilities in the impacted areas. Consider alternate sites, wrap-around support service providers, and how support service contractors may be affected.
  • Some PPE challenges included having adequate touch-free thermometers and masks.

Jonesboro CWL successfully balanced restoration efforts with COVID-19 protections

Public power utility Jonesboro City Water and Light (CWL) took several steps to minimize the threat of exposure to COVID-19 for utility crews during a recent mutual aid effort to restore power to customers in the wake of a tornado that hit Jonesboro, Arkansas, in March.

CWL took several steps to minimize the potential exposure to COVID-19 for workers helping with restoration efforts, which were detailed in a “lessons learned” document that it prepared.

Responsible re-entry and return to the workplace

The other new section of the guide addresses responsible re-entry and return to the workplace.

The ESCC said that as the industry prepares to shift from remote operations to return to the workplace, it has identified four strategic priorities that will help define this next stage in the pandemic response.

  • Industry plans for returning to the workplace should be coordinated with state/local governments and executed in phases
  • Focus on the health and safety of the industry’s workforce and customers
  • Anticipate and address any technology-related challenges and cyber threats associated with the return the workplace
  • Clear and consistent internal and external messaging will be critical for all aspects of a re-entry plan

The guide, which offers additional details on each of the four strategic priorities, said that the priorities are guiding the development of tools and resources that will support electric companies, public power utilities, and electric cooperatives as they make independent, localized decisions based on the situations in their communities.

“As these resources are being addressed, the ESCC will continue to identify needs for federal assistance to help facilitate the industry’s re-entry planning,” the ESCC said.

These requests will be coordinated through the Department of Energy.