Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Preparedness culture in the digital age


Since Sandy, the APPA staff and scores of members have participated in multiple storm response exercises held at the local, regional, and national level. The exercises are one sign of how much has changed in the way utilities are preparing for emergencies.

When Superstorm Sandy slammed into the Northeast in October 2012, it knocked out power to about 8.5 million homes and businesses and set off a massive restoration effort that ultimately changed the way utilities prepare for extreme weather and extended outages.

The Rockville Centre electric department is one public power utility that revamped its emergency plan after Superstorm Sandy, which interrupted three transmission lines that supply electricity to the village on Long Island, New York.

When Sandy hit, the village of about 24,000 had a single emergency plan that included the utility and other village departments, said Philip Andreas, superintendent of the Rockville Centre electric department.

Under Andreas' direction, the utility developed its own storm preparation plan that is structured as a checklist so that activities aren't missed and key information is documented and tracked. The plan has four main sections dealing with steps that must be taken each year, two to three days in advance of a storm, during a storm, and after a storm, including a critique of how the storm was handled and how to get information for federal reimbursement, Andreas said.

Each section of the plan is organized by responsibilities for various utility employees, such as the utility's power plant supervisor, engineer and the meter readers, Andreas said. The plan identifies steps to take in emergencies.

Norwich Public Utilities in Connecticut was also hit by Sandy and looked at how it could improve its response to storms, said John Bilda, the utility's general manager.

NPU more clearly defined the assignments and expectations for its employees in its emergency operations center, Bilda said. Also, the critical positions in the operations center — incident command, operations, finance and planning — have received cross-functional training so that at least three colleagues can perform in each role.

Bilda said that NPU has increased its use of a geographical information system, or GIS, to track its personnel and equipment in an effort to increase accountability and safety. The utility has also improved its GIS and outage management capabilities by upgrading its technology and increasing training, he said.

NPU developed memoranda of understandings with its three labor unions to streamline the administrative functions related to storm response, according to Bilda.

Weaknesses, exposed
Almost every utility in the United States was affected by Sandy, either directly or through mutual aid, leading to significant changes in storm preparation across the country, said Jeff Lewis, an energy and utilities expert with PA Consulting Group. "It definitely impacted everybody," he said.

The storm exposed weaknesses in the way the government, utilities and other organizations respond to storms, said Mike Hyland, American Public Power Association senior vice president of engineering services.

Working out of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's national response center along with David Owens, the Edison Electric Institute's executive vice president for business operations group and regulatory affairs, Hyland had a front row seat in how the response to Sandy was managed. He was receiving text messages from utilities that were slammed by the storm as well as from utilities that wanted to help out. "I'm thinking to myself, there's got to be a better way," Hyland recalled.

About 1,500 crews from around the country were sent to hard hit states such as Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. More than 80 percent of the public power crews were coordinated through APPA, Hyland said.

One of the things APPA and others noticed during the storm response was that they didn't know exactly who was on the ground, Hyland said. Sometimes crews were sent outside of the national effort. And during the restoration work, finding accommodations and food for crews was sometimes a haphazard process.

Communications, improved
After Sandy, the Department of Energy (DOE) led a "hotwash" event to assess what could have gone better during the storm response, Hyland said. Problems included difficulties in getting fuel and convoys of crews racing up from southern states getting delayed at tollbooths on the New Jersey turnpike.

What did the DOE find? Communication needed to improve between the federal government, states and utilities during a major storm as well as between the utilities themselves.

In response, investor-owned utilities reduced their mutual aid groups while municipal utilities got better organized, partly so they could improve communications with the IOUs, Hyland said.

Public power established the Mutual Aid Working Group, which formalized a mutual aid plan and developed a playbook for what to do during a disaster. There are 10 regions within the public power mutual aid plan.

Public power, cooperative and investor-owned utilities have been practicing storm response through a series of exercises led by the DOE. "We need to practice what we're trying to create," Hyland said.

Since Sandy, the APPA staff and scores of members have participated in multiple storm response exercises held at the local, regional, and national level. APPA held its first exercise for public power utilities at its 2015 National Conference. APPA plans to host another exercise in June 2016 for its members. APPA will also host a national storm response exercise in October as part of a cooperative agreement with the DOE.

The exercises are one sign of how much has changed in the way utilities are preparing for emergencies since Sandy, Hyland said.

Resilience, amplified
There have been other significant changes in the way utilities prepare for storms since Sandy, especially in four key areas: technology, process, organization and people, said PA Consulting's Lewis.

"The utility industry stood up and took notice of Sandy and has captured a lot of the lessons from Sandy," Lewis said. "We're better prepared for storms and have a more resilient grid."

The changes have helped slash restoration times from what a decade ago may have taken six days to about three days, Lewis said.

There have been major changes in the way technology is used to handle major storms, according to Lewis. For example, utilities are increasingly using mobile devices for damage assessments, he said. Damage assessments used to be a time-consuming paper process, with inspectors going out into the field to record the damage and returning at the end of the day to put work orders together. Now, the process is online, with pictures taken in the field and sent instantly to a control center for response. What was a 10- to 12-hour process is now almost instantaneous.

The growing number of smart meters helps on the tail end of restoration efforts when mainly individual outages remain, Lewis said. A utility can ping customer meters and, if needed, send crews to make repairs in a process that is more efficient than in the past.

Utility communications have improved, according to Lewis. For example, utilities have gotten better at nailing down the estimated time of restoration, or ETR, which helps an organization understand what its goals are, Lewis said. Accurate ETRs can also lead to improved customer satisfaction.

Some utilities have also improved their organization by adopting an incident command system, which creates a common structure to help different organizations, such as police, fire departments and county emergency management, handle emergencies, Lewis said.

Utility workers are also better trained since Sandy, according to Lewis. For example, storm drills may be based on scenarios where outages reach 90 percent, when in the past the scenario may have called for outage levels at 20 percent.

Further, the power grid is more resilient than it was before Sandy, with utilities raising substations to prevent damage from flooding and hardening key circuits. "Day-to-day outages have declined," he said.

After Sandy, most utilities reviewed and refined their emergency response plans for dealing with major events such as storms, Lewis said. "We've gotten much better on logistics."