Each year, the U.S. federal government gives states and hospitals approximately $1 billion for disaster preparedness. That is more than the entire healthcare budget of many Third World countries. Healthcare experts say if coronavirus, known as COVID-19, a respiratory disease originating in China, spreads widely in the United States one of the biggest challenges will be staffing hospitals. Without a vaccine, many doctors and nurses on the front lines of caring for patients will be infected. Even healthcare workers who aren’t infected may have family members who are, so they’ll end up missing shifts to stay home and care for sick relatives.
Staffing will be no less of a challenge for utilities if COVID-19 circulates widely. Many utilities have experience to draw on, though. In 2009, the swine-flu pandemic, which was caused by the H1N1 virus, affected approximately 16 percent of the world’s population. By definition, a pandemic causes a significant amount of deaths, involves person-to-person transmission and occurs worldwide. Utilities have historically done a great job of preparing for all types of events, and, while pandemic plans have existed for some time, COVID-19 is a driver to review plans, communicate internally and respond accordingly.
Back to the future
Some of the resource management preparations from 11 years ago included making plans for non-essential employees to work from home if possible. For essential personnel like line crews and dispatching, that’s a different story. Dispatch organizations considered cordoning off operations, sequestering essential personnel and providing space to work, eat and sleep for days or even a week at a time. Prior to starting a shift, each employee would go through quarantine and testing to make sure he or she wasn’t infected. If a worker tested negative, the managers would allow the person to enter the work area. This process repeated until the pandemic had passed. If COVID-19 were to cause widespread infections, the normal workforce that many utilities rely upon may not be willing or able to come to work.
To plan for this and address gaps, utilities could begin verifying everyone’s roles and responsibilities, including storm roles. By updating records, utility managers will find it easier and efficient to know whom to bring in should a person with the primary responsibility fall ill. For organizations with automated crew management platforms, incident commanders could use their technology to review employees’ roles and set up staffing scenarios based on which resources are available to work. These crew management platforms are typically refreshed instantly with employee qualifications and status, which could help in a COVID-19 scenario. Technology can help utility managers gauge resource availability and see at what point they might need external assistance. That said, a widely spreading virus could cause a utility to lose many of its contractors because they become ill, can’t enter an area that’s quarantined or stay home to care for sick relatives. This could also impact external resources from other utilities. That would cause utilities to rely primarily, or solely, on native crews. For utilities building and managing crews and resources manually, this planning is still possible, but likely crunching this data would require days or even weeks instead of hours or even minutes.
The goal, in part, is to ask ourselves as an industry how to put our best foot forward when maintaining or restoring service during a wider outbreak. For example, during the H1N1 preparations, utilities considered how line crews might have to interact with consumers. If a crew was, for example, installing a pad-mounted transformer, some utilities decided to communicate to customers in advance that their crews wouldn’t be able to speak with customers while in the field in order to avoid the risk of exposure. Managers instructed crew foremen to add an additional barrier to the perimeter of their work area, keeping the public and others a safe distance away to avoid the transmission of the virus.
Along with managing people and crews during a pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security suggests that utilities consider scenarios involving equipment, material and government regulations. For instance, many utilities stockpile several months’ worth of material in an anticipation of storm season. If, however, a COVID-19 outbreak disrupts the supply chain, how will utilities obtain what they need for employees? According to DHS, “reliance on ‘just-in-time’ delivery could shut down your supply chain, . . . consider stockpiling fuels (i.e., coal, gas, and oil), replacement parts and personal protective equipment (e.g., masks, gloves, hand sanitizer) on site or make contingency plans.”
Since utilities already generally stockpile material, the bigger question in planning for a pandemic is how stockpiled material at, say, a central warehouse gets distributed to service centers when needed. If COVID-19 were widespread, utilities may not have enough workers to transport supplies to a service yard. Or a quarantine might prevent a utility delivering material to an affected area. If a significant number of workers fell ill to COVID-19, utilities may see regulators make exceptions to reliability indices because of a limited number of native and contract crews in the field maintaining service. If one utility, in particular, is hard hit with absences, managers may want to request such an exception.
During the planning for the H1N1 virus, utility industry recommendations also included selecting a subset of a utility’s senior management team to spearhead planning and response. That team was to oversee task groups who, in turn, would:
- Identify critical processes and operations to keep running versus putting on hold non-critical activities (e.g., meter reading);
- Implement a communications strategy and relay specific information about the spread of H1N1 to employees to stop false reports and mitigate panic and, if necessary, counsel employees and families;
- Establish health screening for people returning to work after infection or caring for an infected relative;
- Review technology plans to identify and solve any business limitations that might arise from moving operations to a remote site or being blocked from entering a site due to quarantine.
Many utilities already have these processes as part of standard emergency response planning. But a pandemic introduces challenges unlike a major storm or cyberattack because a utility’s workforce is directly in the virus’ crosshairs. At the beginning of February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notified the public that people should prepare for COVID-19 because the virus was likely to gain a foothold in America. By drawing on past plans and making contingencies for new scenarios, utility managers can maintain the critical electric service that healthcare workers need to stop COVID-19 from gaining anything more than a foothold.
Jim Nowak retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility’s distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company’s operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI’s National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees. He currently serves as senior director of Operations, Product and Services for ARCOS LLC. Contact him at [email protected].