Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

An Unusual Nor'easter Tests the New NEPPA Mutual Aid Solution

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October 27, 2021 caught many Bay Staters by surprise. An unexpected nor’easter slammed into the Massachusetts coast and left almost 500,000 residents without power — and a mess for the state’s utilities to clean up.

This nor’easter didn’t bring the winter wonderland many expected. The storm instead delivered heavy rain and intense winds. Local news channels paid little attention to the looming storm, forcing residents and utility crews alike to react quickly.

The Northeast Public Power Association (NEPPA), a regional trade association based outside of Boston, supports nearly 80 utility members throughout New England from southern Connecticut to northern Maine. NEPPA provides a mutual aid program for its members as one of its primary services. Through the program, NEPPA coordinates crew assistance from neighboring utilities when other member utilities are impacted by significant weather events such as hurricanes or snowstorms. This October nor’easter was no exception.

“It was one of the worst storms affecting coastal Massachusetts since my involvement,” David Ketchen, Assistant General Manager for Littleton Electric Light and Water Departments shared. “You can tell which storms are the worst just based on the mutual aid requests that come in. The requests came in consistently throughout the day, it wasn’t just one quick pass. It was an all-day event as far as mutual aid is concerned.”

The storm hit numerous regions within the NEPPA mutual aid network, demanding synergy among multiple different regional coordinators in order to best determine what resources went where. They all worked out of Veoci, a cloud-based emergency management platform, that acted as a central common space and database for users.

Ketchen explained that having everything in one software made it easy to quarterback, especially since all of the players were not just down the hall, but throughout New England. Utilities were able to request mutual aid with a click of a button. A simple digital form collected critical information and shared it with the appropriate coordinators.

Request information was fed into a centralized map view providing a visual representation of where aid was needed. Ketchen added that larger storms like this nor’easter necessitate cautious crew allocation, as crews should remain as local as possible. “We have 10 regional coordinators located in three different states responsible for coordinating NEPPA mutual aid for all of New England. Having one centralized location that all coordinators can reference when determining how to dispatch crews is vital and Veoci provides that.”

Veoci helped coordinators track and close out each of the eight aid requests. Notifications also automatically alerted assisting utilities to their crews’ returns. Dashboards played a key role in maintaining this common operating picture, as well as providing insight into response performance. According to Ketchen, “Being able to go back, review the analytics, and see how the day played out and how we can improve for the next large event ... this is so crucial.”

The mutual aid network’s response process and procedures did not drastically change with Veoci, in fact they are very much the same that they have always been. Veoci was not the saving grace of the day, that would be the hard work of all utility members of NEPPA. The software purely gave a collaborative working space that therefore increased communication and provided an aerial view of the event.

Although the next nor’easter may blow through with little warning, with the help of Veoci, the coordination of resources and effective mutual aid response will be no surprise.