Utility workers restore power as a team. Getting the job done means sharing and managing information, resources, tools and more. Having a laser-beam focus on power restoration at the risk of putting local officials through an “information outage” might’ve been excusable in year’s past. But in today’s world of self-serve information, people at all levels outside a utility expect to know what’s happening in real time and how they can help.
As an industry, let’s channel that demand for information into a positive, two-way exchange. Utility professionals have cooperation in the blood. So, the industry’s mindset should be: Our team has just gotten bigger, and these new players (i.e., local and regional agencies) can support us if we edify and inform them through face-to-face meetings as well as technology to simulate different staffing scenarios.
That mindset is contagious and creates a positive bond between utility directors and city supervisors, city safety directors or community representatives. Getting a community restored safely and efficiently today means knowing the priorities and emergency plans of local officials and a wider circle of potential “teammates” at the state level, such as the transportation department, emergency management organization or governor’s office.
Through your government relations team or corporate communications partners seek advice, support and help brokering a meeting with local or state officials. Meet away from the office, when an incident is not occurring, where you can get to know one another and pre-plan and prioritize outage restoration. For example, think of the ripple effects of having no power for a community’s ATM machines. Without cash and the internet or satellite communications down, you can’t use credit cards and people can’t buy what they need to recover from an extended outage. If people are returning from an evacuation, they need to fill their cars, buy food and purchase or rent power tools.
When trouble strikes and you need assistance to reach a location to restore power or access broken poles and transformers, your extended team will understand your restoration plan and how, for instance, removing debris for you can expedite restoration. First responders, of course, will help regardless of relationships. But if a local sheriff understands a utility director’s priorities in advance of trouble, the official will expedite opening a specific road and may even send a police escort to help bucket trucks quickly reach a substation that could get 10,000 people back online.
Thinking of administrators and representatives beyond your walls as part of your extended team changes everyone’s mindset and helps a community bounce back faster. Strengthen these connections with follow-up meetings, phone calls, emails and invitations to join in your annual restoration exercise.
Start building your team before you need them
Let’s say a utility has just tapped a person to serve as its incident commander (IC) for the upcoming storm season. Before trouble strikes, one of the first things should be finding the utility’s liaison to local emergency management officials. The liaison might be a lobbyist in the utility’s government relations office or one of the company’s public relations officials. The key is that the liaison helps the IC establish a relationship not only as it relates to daily operations but also for significant events requiring the utility to ask for local or state assistance.
To be effective, an IC and his staff should know whom to contact during events and bring these contacts in to observe and participate in annual exercises. These contacts (e.g., people running local or state government or staffing emergency management or police and fire) will be the ones who can also assist a utility in prioritizing critical loads. While utility personnel may have identified all the police precincts and hospitals to restore as part of a plan, the community and statewide partnerships help utility managers consider and prioritize potentially low-visibility locations like water and sewer treatment plants.
To complete a safe restoration requires working with stakeholders at agencies in the communities across a service territory. Years ago, this sort of coordination rarely happened; restoration entailed restoring service to police, a hospital and the biggest outage from that point on down. All the while, grocery stores were throwing away spoiled food and hardware stores couldn’t open to supply consumers with tools and generators. While the industry has come a long way from those scenarios, savvy utilities know the best teamwork during an event rests on an ICS structure. Building that structure and connecting it with the extended team is a must.
The quality of your relationship with regional mutual assistance groups (RMAG) matters, too. Contributing to RMAG calls and helping people know you and your personality pays dividends when you or a neighboring utility need help. Invest the time to actively participate.
Promotions, retirements and elections mean you have to keep introducing yourself to new members of your “extended team.” Monitor news about people changing roles and positions because that’s the time to begin cultivating and educating a new contact.
Build those relationships before trouble strikes, and you won’t feel like a lone ranger.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org