At a recent conference, a midwest utility emergency manager told me that he wishes his executives would adopt the incident command system (ICS).
“They don’t understand how ICS provides a structure that allows an effective response for all incidents,” he grumbled. “When molded for utilities, ICS is a framework that puts people in the right place to get intelligence, mobilize a response, develop a plan and demobilize in an orderly way.”
According to Firehouse magazine, the destruction caused by a series of deadly Southern California wildfires in 1970 led to a federally funded program that gave rise to an incident command system. In the intervening years, major events such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led to improvements that brought about the National Incident Management System (NIMS).
ICS includes command, operations, planning, logistics and a variety of other roles. But ICS doesn’t require a specific number of people. In fact, one person can own all the roles depending upon the size of the incident. I’ve held all the roles at one time or another; and it’s a myth that implementing ICS upends everyone’s duties or causes significant change for an organization.
Ann Steeves, chief executive officer of HC-EMI, consults on issues like ICS and is a former operations manager for emergency management at Portland General Electric. With her encyclopedic knowledge of ICS, she passionately spreads the word about the system’s benefits. Her career began with a municipal fire department and then transitioned to healthcare. She was among the pioneers who brought the ICS framework to her utility and later the utility industry.
“When an incident begins, you might have hundreds of people in the field collecting the “Ëœground truth,’ or intelligence,” said Steeves. “You have to come up with that single, common operating picture.
“Using ICS keeps everyone in the company on the same page with the operational plan for the day,” added Steeves.
To capture this picture with the ICS, you need three things: Structure, practice and technology.
Developing your structure and identifying the players
ICS provides a basic template for organizing your company and should provide a foundation for how you provide general responsibilities for each role. Once you have your organization complete, the next step is filling and training the roles in ICS based on employees’ skills, not necessarily their normal duties. When responding to an incident, for instance, your supervisor may be your peer, while a director may be the on-scene commander. This aligns the tasks within a utility. The ICS operations chief focuses on tactical challenges. And the planning chief looks at how to resolve the incident strategically and set goals such as estimated times of restoration (ETR).
Generally, planning chiefs should have operations experience and planning skills. This allows them to take data to analyze and develop a plan of attack that can be safely carried out by an operations chief who targets high-priority or critical facilities (e.g., police stations and hospitals) for restoration. ICS doesn’t change your processes; it structures the work to allow each employee to work more efficiently and provides a standardized approach.
Practice the process
For people new to ICS, their tendency is to try and manage it all. But through practice – even with small, single outages – they quickly learn to delegate certain duties, which permits them to focus solely on one specific area.
“Exercises take a building-block approach, and perfecting ICS is all about capability-based planning,” remarked Steeves. “You want an annual cycle of training and exercises ranging from damage assessment and radio communications to wire-guard tasks and estimating restoration times; break it into bite-size capabilities and strengthen them year after year.”
Incident management software
Historically, utilities have largely managed ICS with manual processes: Filling out the ICS forms, using spreadsheets to determine and activate the various roles, providing daily updates and determining demobilization. Automating the activation of the ICS structure and providing the documentation and communication to ramp up into an incident can be a critical time-saver, so look for tools to computerize these manual hand-offs, files and call lists.
Technology that mirrors the ICS lets a utility automatically notify, activate and mobilize a variety of workers to help manage the incident, collect intelligence, enhance situational awareness and effectively manage resources. Another potential benefit for incident management technology is automating the manual process of reporting on the details of the restoration process, which can expedite reimbursement from FEMA (for government utilities), response to public commission inquires (by investor-owned utilities) and reports to local agencies in the wake of an incident.
Utilities should also have downtime procedures to deploy if software systems go offline or their connection to the Internet is lost. Imagine if your OMS went down, and you couldn’t see what was happening on the grid. It’s important to look at things like satellite-based communications and even options such as amateur radio to bridge an unexpected gap or local failure of equipment.
Hurricanes and storms make the news. But utility customers also face the effects of floods, wildfires, breached dams and data center outages. Standardizing the response to all kinds of incidents through ICS is a way to stay on top.
About the author: 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 director of Utility Services for ARCOS LLC. Contact him at email@example.com