Sustaining Emergency Readiness

By Anil Jayavarapu, Avineon, and Michael Caffrey, EPP

In Vince Lombardi’s famous quote, he states, “Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” This mantra holds true across a number of industries, including emergency preparedness for utility companies. Millions of customers across the U.S. are affected by power outages each year. While these power outages are caused by a number of factors, energy delivery companies must remain in a state of perpetual readiness for managing emergencies throughout the year.

Due to multiple potential global threats such as terrorism, pandemics and cyberattacks, energy delivery companies are expanding their emergency management scope from traditional readiness and restoration for storms and other acts of nature to a multidimensional program that encompasses 21st century all hazards emergency management and response capabilities. This includes pandemic response plans, special security protocols for protecting the information technology (IT) infrastructure and procedures for collaborating with communities, as well as local, state and federal government entities.

The ongoing changes in internal and external standards, assets, people, processes and technology can debilitate response capabilities and upset business continuity during emergencies. Successful organizations have found that planning and conducting various levels of exercises and drills covering high- and medium-probability threats are the most effective tools to test plans for sustaining emergency readiness and ensuring operations continuity.

 

A Growing Challenge

 

Many customers take electricity and natural gas services for granted primarily because energy delivery companies go to great lengths to provide them with uninterrupted and reliable service. Each year events such as ice storms, hurricanes and fires damage assets (infrastructure and equipment), causing unavoidable large-scale service disruptions. During these events, utilities provide rapid restoration of service that is complex to manage. The response and recovery is costly on several fronts, including outlays for response personnel and asset replacement, as well as loss of revenue.

The Utility Storm Restoration report from Edison Electric Institute (EEI) that focused on investor-owned utilities illustrates these challenges. According to the EEI report, more than 12 million customers had service outages from 44 major storms between 1989 and 2003. These service outages averaged 280,000 customers per storm event and required an average of six days to restore services using an estimated 2,500 restoration personnel working at the peak of the restoration effort. The Kentucky Public Service Commission Report focuses on two recent disasters—the September 2008 wind storm and the January 2009 ice storm. It estimates the damage cost around $1.21 billion with millions of service outages.

The effectiveness of emergency response relies heavily on how well employees are trained in using the plans and procedures. The only constant in many companies is change—company ownership, employee roles and responsibilities, system expansions, upgrades and reconfigurations. This can make it challenging to sustain the desired level of readiness to respond to traditional and emerging emergencies.

 

Preparing to Meet the Challenge

 

When using emergency management processes and procedures to rapidly restore large-scale service disruptions, utility companies rely on employees, mutual assistance resources and contractors. Guiding these efforts are emergency plans and procedures. These plans describe the management, communication, operational and collaboration aspects of emergency functions, including prioritization strategies, crew mobilization protocols, mutual assistance agreements, evacuation procedures and safety procedures. The use of the incident command system (ICS) within these plans provides a standardized approach for effective response and recovery operations.

The key to preparedness lies with having adequate resources trained and experienced in using the emergency processes and protocols. Resources, both internal and external, are often expected to work collaboratively using processes and systems they may not use frequently during their normal business day. This can cause personnel to improvise or overlook critical steps when confronted with a real emergency.

During major emergency events, situations change rapidly, and little room for missteps and on-the-job training exists. Resources across multiple geographical locations must function in a synchronized manner in accordance with the emergency plans tailored for the specific events. A responder’s inability to quickly and effectively execute the plans could risk employee safety, delay the service restoration time and potentially cause customer dissatisfaction and regulatory scrutiny.

The Kentucky Public Service Commission report highlights the need for establishing routine communication protocols and the need for utility involvement in the state, local and community emergency exercises and drills.

Because responders are challenged to act quickly in difficult and rapidly changing situations, exercises and drills provide the best opportunity to practice emergency plans in a controlled environment, identify strengths and weaknesses, and identify improvements. Exercises also facilitate discussion and problem solving in a constructive manner. They are typically modeled around complex scenarios resembling previous incidents and anticipated events. Responders at the executive, command, management and tactical levels follow the emergency procedures, processes and tools to deliver the desired response. While some scenarios are best simulated with tabletop exercises, others are better addressed through functional or full-scale exercises.

The coordination and documentation process for scheduling, planning, designing, developing, conducting, evaluating and improving exercises and drills is complex. Using a structured processes or a standard such as U.S. Department of Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) as a template can improve the quality of outcomes.

Evaluation and improvement planning for emergencies requires clearly defined and articulated documentation on how specific tasks were performed from qualitative and quantitative standpoints during an exercise or a drill. It is important to identify lessons learned and corrective actions.

Data collection complexity increases with the number of participating members, organizational units and organizations. Software tools designed to collaborate and document exercises and drills can alleviate complexities and provide a cost-effective way to conduct effective exercises and drills for all-hazards readiness.

 

Benefits of Exercises and Drills

 

Planning and implementing exercises and drills provide several benefits, including:

  • Training and testing employees’ knowledge and awareness in deploying the emergency plans and processes,
  • Validating and benchmarking response and recovery capabilities, and
  • Identifying areas of improvements to achieve the desired state of perpetual readiness.

 

Costs associated with conducting well-planned and documented exercises and drills cannot be underestimated. Exercises and drills are resource-intensive and require commitment from many employees who would otherwise be focused on their primary job functions. A consistent program of exercises and drills, however, can build the expertise and readiness necessary to minimize the negative impacts that emergencies can have on employees, customers and business operations.

The correct balance must be struck with scheduling and designing the appropriate number and type of annual exercises and drills based on anticipated threats, actionable intelligence and weather forecasts. By planning and participating in adequate exercises and drills, energy delivery companies can be better prepared to meet high- and medium-probability threats.

Anil Jayavarapu is the director, business process management solutions at Avineon (http://avineon.com), an IT services and software solutions company serving utility customers for more than 18 years. Jayavarapu specializes in the process-driven approach for emergency management.

Michael Caffrey is the vice president of operations at EPP (http://emergencypreparednesspartnerships.com), a firm specializing in utility emergency preparedness and storm restoration. Caffrey previously served as manager of emergency preparedness for PEPCO Holdings Inc.

 

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