Disaster preparedness in utilities: Because we’re all in this together

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Disaster preparedness in utilities: Because we’re all in this together

Disasters have become a part of our daily news cycle and our awareness. Communities are learning that the key to resilience is the understanding that we are all in this together. Electric utilities are vulnerable to the same risks and hazards that threaten other industries with the added caveat that if they go down, the […]

Disasters have become a part of our daily news cycle and our awareness. Communities are learning that the key to resilience is the understanding that we are all in this together. Electric utilities are vulnerable to the same risks and hazards that threaten other industries with the added caveat that if they go down, the communities in the region they serve are at extreme risk. So a power company is not only trying to protect its revenue and profit—it is also responsible for the welfare and safety of its customers; businesses, homes, schools, hospitals and other critical facilities all depend on the uninterrupted flow of power that can only be provided by the electric power companies.

An increasing public awareness of risks and hazards brings increasing focus on the utilities to be ready to do more than respond to an event. They must actively engage in the five phases of emergency management: mitigation, prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

Some do this by adding emergency management responsibilities to current supervisory duties.  Public Service Company of Oklahoma (PSO) Plant Manager Mark Barton manages the Northeast Station in Oolagah, OK. An experienced plant manager, Barton oversees everything, including emergency management activities.  Weather (tornadoes, ice storms) and chemical releases are two likely hazards his plant faces. “In order to mitigate against the potential damage of a chemical release into the community,” he said, “we limit the amount of chemicals in storage and at hand, and use liquid bleach instead of gaseous chlorine, which is less of a risk to the community in case of a release.”

Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) recently created the position of an Emergency Management Preparedness Manager in order to integrate emergency management into the rest of the company. Mike Douglas has filled that role for a year. His initial focus has been on education and communication.  Beginning with a series of conferences and meetings, staff has become more engaged and less resistant. Initial resistance is common when introducing personnel in any organization to emergency preparedness training, but is easy to overcome with good information and active participation. “It’s an evolving process,” Douglas said, “but engagement, encouragement, and communication are the keys. Now they are accepting the challenge.”

Flooding is a potential hazard. “Every one of the plants are located near a waterway,” he says. “One water facility is located by a river, so flooding can be an issue. If something gets into the navigable water that can create problems.” For that hazard, they have a trained crisis management team in place.  Flooding can also create security issues. “Water can collapse the security fence,” Douglas said, “so I had to mitigate against that and add extra security until they could improve the perimeter.”

PSO and OG&E both have developed emergency response plans, business continuity plans, and use exercises and drills to test those plans. PSO Vice President Distribution Operations, Steve Baker makes sure the distribution side of PSO also prepares. “We regularly engage in drills, testing our plans, practicing the restoration of service and business continuity,” he said. “We ask the questions; what happens if we have a failure of underground lines?”

Both companies are working at becoming NIMS-compliant (National Incident Management System), and both use the Incident Command System (ICS) in managing events.

Both companies have learned to include the community in their training. PSO routinely works with local emergency management agencies, fire departments and other first responders as part of the training process in drills and tabletop exercises.

OG&E has had joint exercises with the city and the state. Last year, they participated in a state-facilitated earthquake drill. “We had a liaison in the ops group in the city’s Emergency Operations Center, and we have a designated person on call with them,” Douglas said.

OG&E has been meeting with community leaders, emergency response groups, and even non-profits in order to build partnerships in preparedness and resiliency. “Discussion-based exercises help forge relationships and clarify roles and responsibilities,” Douglas said.

To summarize, the keys to a disaster-ready electric utilities company are as follows:

  • Emergency response and business continuity plans: Have a dedicated person in place to assure the development and maintenance of these plans. Ensure that employees know the plans and their roles in them.
  • Educate and train. Test the plans with drills and exercises. Discussion-based exercises help set expectations, clarify roles and responsibilities, and identify areas that need improvement.
  • ICS and NIMS compliancy: Training in the standardized ICS/NIMS structure enhances your company’s incident management, improves communications with outside responder agencies with the use of standardized terminology, and clarifies roles and responsibilities, making for a smoother and more efficient response and recovery. It can also strengthen eligibility for federal funding in the aftermath of a disaster.
  • Include your community in planning and training. Build partnerships, build relationships.

“Building relationships is key,” said Douglas. “It’s not about OG&E against the world. We’re in this together.”

By Crystal Kline, Energy Writer

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