A utility’s security game plan must include crisis management

Richard Andrews, National Center for Crisis and Continuity Coordination (NC4)


Richard Andrews, NC4
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The persistent threats of terrorist activities, coupled with even more frequently occurring natural disasters, serve as ongoing reminders of the importance of effective crisis management and business-continuity planning. In light of the heightened potential for a crisis, electric utility organizations have been revisiting their emergency management protocols to ensure that they are adequately addressing emerging threats.

A crisis can have a significant effect on an organization’s reputation, financial stability, health and well-being of its employees and consumers, the community and the environment. Crisis management has become an increasingly important aspect of modern business management. It is a strategy that links the functions of risk management, business continuity, security, emergency response and recovery to address a crisis.

What you have

Information and coordination serve as the bedrock for emergency planning and business continuity programs. As part of this approach, electric utilities typically have clear processes for disseminating information and directing employees in the event of a crisis. To increase crisis planning and response effectiveness, utilities must also formalize an operational model to share information and coordinate activities with local, state and federal public-sector agencies, as well as key private-sector businesses.

As a vital component to a region’s economic ecosystem, a utility must be able to quickly reach all areas of its coverage region. To quickly address emergencies, power utilities must receive and share emergency coordination and response information with leading public-private sector organizations. While many utility managers work regularly with local police, fire and other public agencies, this is typically an informal process largely based on personal relationships.

The informal sharing of crisis information is pervasive across all industries. As part of our “tabletop” emergency preparedness exercises, we run through crisis scenarios and work with public-private sector attendees to hone and formalize emergency response plans. During our sessions, we also ask attendees how they addressed a specific event, such as an escalation in the Homeland Security Advisory System. Typically, all of the attendees contact a public-sector agency or coordinate with neighboring businesses or industry partners. Managers proactively seeking information demonstrate a level of attentiveness and professionalism when addressing an escalation in the threat level.

What you need

Generally, there is no formal process in place–no centralized clearinghouse–for energy utilities and other essential service providers to access accurate, time-critical emergency information. Consequently, a financial services company may receive crisis background based on a contact at the FBI, while a city’s largest insurance company may receive slightly different information regarding the same event from the local police.

Gathering emergency planning information based on an informal process and personal relationships can significantly restrict a utility’s ability to gather critical information quickly. Without complete information, utilities are significantly hampered in their abilities to plan effectively or accurately. Rather, utilities are forced to make emergency planning decisions based on standard best practices. Without visibility into a specific threat or emergency, utilities cannot modify their planning to address the characteristics of the threat.

For example, the local manufacturer that closes its facility and evacuates employees should be able to quickly learn from local authorities if roads or highways have been closed, causing traffic to be rerouted. Mass office closings, coupled with slight traffic detours, can create unintended gridlock and significantly affect a utility’s ability to reach specific satellite sites or repair power

outages in specific regions. Working independently of one another, organizations may unintentionally exacerbate emergency response efforts by creating traffic congestion and not prioritizing response events due to lack of information.

Utilities have also come to the realization that they may have to turn to their competitors to provide assistance in the wake of a catastrophic disaster. A major earthquake or terrorist attack could easily devastate a utility and prevent the provision of essential services to their customers. Assistance in the form of personnel or equipment could potentially mitigate the collapse of a critical infrastructure. Developing coordination and collaboration between utilities would provide an essential element of business continuity and expedite the recovery process.

The electric utilities industry continues its vigilance against terrorism and preparedness for natural disasters. However, warnings that future terrorist attacks may target electric utilities and other critical infrastructures dictate that emergency management and business-continuity planning must become an integrated focus for all business and government initiatives. Electric utilities must work closely with government and business organizations to develop formalized public-private practices and operational models to manage new crisis and business-continuity requirements.

Andrews is a principal consultant on emergency management for the National Center for Crisis and Continuity Coordination (NC4).

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