Mutual Assistance: Helping Hands in the Aftermath of a Storm

By Steven M. Brown, Senior Associate Editor

Will Rogers, Oklahoma’s often-quoted favorite son, described the vicissitudes of Midwestern weather patterns well when he said, “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute.”

No one in Oklahoma, or Kansas, liked the weather in late January 2002. And if the icy weather system that knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans and Kansans had lasted only a minute, it would have been a minute too long as far as Oklahoma Gas & Electric and Kansas City Power & Light customers were concerned.

A Devastating Storm

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On Jan. 30, 2002, a band of moist air collided with a frigid blast of arctic air over Oklahoma and Kansas. The result of that midair collision was ice, and lots of it. A thick coating of ice covered everything: the ground, streets, highways, tree limbs, power lines, transmission towers, distribution poles–everything with an exposed surface. Large parts of Oklahoma and Kansas bore more resemblance to the Arctic North than to the idyllic image of the Midwestern plains.

And when ice-covered trees, power lines and poles began to snap under the weight of it all, the picture was right out of a war story.

In Oklahoma, the ice storm knocked out power to more than 195,000 of OG&E’s 700,000 customers. The storm destroyed 1,700 transmission structures, 7,000 distribution poles, and downed hundreds of miles of transmission and distribution lines.

The 2002 ice storm was by far the costliest storm in OG&E’s 100-year history, with repairs ringing up a final price tag of $92 million. It wasn’t until June 14, 2002, that OG&E’s president and CEO threw the switch to energize the last transmission line left powerless by the ice storm. It had taken more than four months to completely repair the damage.

The same ice storm that hit OG&E’s territory also did significant damage in Kansas, where 305,000 of Kansas City Power & Light’s (KCP&L’s) 450,000 customers lost electric service due to ice damage. Almost 200 of KCP&L’s 550 metro circuits were completely out at some point during the storm, according to the State of Missouri Public Utility Commission.

Helping Hands

When a storm of this magnitude hits, the task of restoring power can be overwhelming–often exceeding the local utility’s abilities to rebuild and re-energize. When nearly three-fourths of KCP&L’s customers lost power during the January 2002 ice storm, the utility employed 447 outside utility and contractor crews and 315 outside tree crews to supplement the 200 KCP&L and local contract crews. In all, personnel from 11 utilities and 10 contractors from 16 states lent a hand in restoring service to KCP&L’s customers. Ninety-five percent of KCP&L’s customers had their power back up and running within seven days–in large part because of all the outside assistance. Similarly, OG&E’s ice storm response involved more than 2,000 people, including 900 out-of-state contractors.

Earlier this year, the Edison Electric Institute honored both OG&E and KCP&L with “Emergency Response Awards” for their performance in restoring power to customers during the January 2002 ice storm. Just as notable, though, was the “Emergency Assistance Award” EEI gave to Entergy for its part in helping both OG&E and KCP&L recover from that devastating storm.

The concept of “mutual assistance”–utilities lending material and personnel support to neighboring utilities during crisis situations–is nothing new, but it is becoming a more prominent practice.

John Sherrod, director of Entergy’s system outage response, said that mutual assistance, at least in conceptual form, has been around throughout the 40-plus years he has been in the business. In past years, however, it was viewed as more of a “last resort” practice than it is now.

“Even within Entergy (Middle South Utilities at the time), we didn’t request or send crews into other states within our own systems,” Sherrod said. “It (mutual assistance) has definitely grown through the years, and is now the first step, rather than a last resort, in responding to a major event.”

Sherrod said two factors are making mutual aid more necessary than it has been in the past. First, many utilities have reduced their own construction and repair workforces, making it necessary to rely on outside help for “peak” work. Second, customer expectations for prompt restoration have increased dramatically.

Entergy might have been particularly well-suited to help OG&E and KCP&L because of its own use of mutual assistance. Sherrod said that Entergy itself has a need for mutual assistance at least once annually. In 2002, Entergy needed outside assistance on three separate occasions: twice for restorations after hurricanes (Isidore and Lili, which hit on two successive Thursdays in fall 2002) and once for its own December ice storm restoration. As is the case with many utilities, Entergy’s native workforce can be stretched to the limits by major weather events.

“We really need help when a big storm hits,” Sherrod said.

Communication and Cooperation

Outage situations bring with them a host of logistical obstacles. When neighboring utility crews and outside contractors join the mix, those logistical concerns can multiply. Who will initiate the call for help? Where will crews be staged? Who will handle dispatching chores? How will invoicing be handled?

A late-January 2002 ice storm destroyed 1,700 transmission structures, 7,000 distribution poles, and downed hundreds of miles of transmission and distribution lines in OG&E’s service territory.
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Iain Ritchie, senior vice president of North American business for LeT Systems, said cost management can be one of the main obstacles encountered during mutual assistance work. (LeT Systems is a vendor of outage management and workforce management software. The company’s emPower product was designed, in part, to help coordinate mutual aid operations.)

“The top companies will be on top of costs,” Ritchie said. “But others will be getting invoices from neighboring utilities three months after the fact, and they’ll have no idea they were coming–and it might be a million dollar invoice. Forecasting costs is a big issue.”

Communication problems can be another wrench in the mutual aid works, but Entergy is part of an innovative group that aims to untangle communication snags during crisis situations.

The “Joint Mobilization Process” was initiated by Carolina Power & Light to help members of the Southeastern Electric Exchange proactively address mutual assistance issues before storms hit. When a major storm threatens one of the member utilities’ service areas, a conference call is initiated. Entergy’s Sherrod said 18 to 20 utilities participate in the call. During the call, there is discussion of anticipated or, in the case of a storm already under way, actual damage, resources needed by the affected utilities, and resources available from the unaffected utilities. The call then becomes a forum to determine how the member utilities can assist one another.

Before the Joint Mobilization Process was put into place, mutual assistance calls weren’t nearly as organized.

“You would have literally 40 or 50 individual phone calls between utilities asking about storms and mutual assistance,” Sherrod said. “Now, we all get on one call, and we all hear the same thing. Then we can make decisions about who should go help whom. It takes a lot of mutual trust and cooperation.”

Sherrod said the process got its trial by fire when Isidore and Lili hit Entergy’s service territory in fall 2002 and has since been used to address two ice storms in Duke Power’s territory. Sherrod said the process has worked well, and the member utilities are still learning how to best communicate mutual aid needs.

Though mutual assistance brings with it many logistical challenges, a spirit of cooperation between utility companies goes a long way toward solving potential problems in outage situations. Entergy is one utility that has certainly learned the value of cooperation, having won either EEI’s Emergency Response Award or Emergency Assistance Award five years running.

“When you have a lot of major events in your area, you come to rely on your allies a great deal, and you know that it is reciprocal,” Sherrod said. “If you use help, you must be willing to send help. The mutual assistance camaraderie transcends any competitive instincts that might exist.”

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