Preparing utilities for a new era of emergency response

Published on: 

I was a teenager when the lights went out one sweltering July night in New York City. My father, a utility worker, rushed out the door into the darkness to help restore power to 9 million people in the metropolitan area. Over the next 24 hours,the streets were overtaken by looting, riots and arson. The Blackout of 1977 would be remembered for more than 1,000 fires ignited,1,600 stores ransacked, 3,700 arrests and millions of dollars in damage.

I never wanted to see that happen again. It was a key reason why, after serving as an officerin the U.S. Navy, I spent years working at three major utilities and then joined PW Power Systems as Manager of Electrical Engineering. Today,I work with customers around the globe, providing equipment that can restore power inthe aftermath of natural disasters. My experience gives me a unique vantage point to gauge how utilities prepare for emergencies. I see their hard work, dedication and innovation—and I see ways they can bolster their response.

If you’re like most of the customers I’ve worked alongside, you’ve built a culture of preparedness from decades of experience. However, some recent natural disasters have shown how unforeseen problems can trigger a cascade of devastating failures. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, we saw a large storm spark a region-wide dash for supplies and cause shortfalls in essentials. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the staggering challenges when a natural disaster hits so hard that utility workers can’t even get to work.Hurricane Sandy revealed how valuable mobile power could have been, as it took days to get flooded power plants back online. The ability to quickly deploy mobile power units to substations in the surrounding network, which had some operational capability, could have reduced the extent of power outages and help expedite recovery.

To cope with this scale of disaster, utilities must establish a new culture of preparedness rooted in the following:

  • The flexibility to adapt to fast-changing situations
  • A radical degree of simplicity, to minimize the number of things that must go right for workers to perform essential tasks
  • Constant refinement and improvement, so preparations can keep pace as storms become increasingly large and powerful

Outsiders often think of the utilities sector as stalwart but stodgy and not innovative. Utilities have to prove those assumptions wrong. They have no choice; lives are on the line in these crises. Theycan take inspiration from the reinvention occurring in other industries. Take car companies, which are responding to groundbreaking new technologies by expanding what they do anddeveloping new mobility options.

To help meet today’s challenges, and tomorrow’s, utilities need to approach preparation with a different mindset and a different set of best practices.

Plan around your peoplePower providers tend to think about preparedness in terms of materials. But your tools are only as good as the workers using them—and those workers won’t perform well if they’re suffering physical or mental strain or lack training in key tasks.

First, make sure you will have the right people in place. You can’t guarantee that every worker will be able to respond, so you need to designate and train multiple backups, not just a roster of alternates. If members of Team A are injured or unable to come in, members of Team B, Team C or Team D can step in.

You also need to set up those workers to succeed. You may need to rehearse more practical scenarios and rehearse more often than you do now, including running both scheduled and unscheduled training exercises. The procedures should become so familiar that your staff will be able to perform them without thinking. In a crisis, your workers may not have time or capacity to figure out what to do; the exercises should be ingrained and automatic.


Maybe most important, utilities have to anticipate their employees’ needs. Plan how you’ll provide food, water, shelter and other essentials to your workers, and in certain cases their families, during an emergency. Your employees probably live in your service area. Consider how you’ll manage if they are personally affected by the crisis, as happened during Katrina.

Tame complexity with simplicityIn an outage, utilities face some of the same problems that we do as homeowners. We may have the tools we need, but we’re not sure where they are, and we can’t find them in the dark or in a panic.

Simplifying ahead of time is paramount. Make sure you have the right tools on hand and know exactly where they are. The right equipment includes high- and medium-voltage cables in various sizes and lengths, terminator kits, wrenches, tape and fuses.

Utilities already stock up on extra materials. Stock up more. Consider the possibility that a storm could move through a huge geographic area, as in Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, affecting surrounding regions and cutting off access to extra materials.

Make sure all appropriate personnel know how to access locked materials. Rather than relying on inventory tracking systems in an emergency, create pre-staged emergency tool kits and store them in facilities near where you’re likely to connect mobile generation, so you won’t lose time fetching essential supplies from far-flung storage yards.

In my day-to-day work, I see a particular need for utilities to plan how they’ll use mobile generators. These units can be an enormously valuable investment: They’re usable for relatively small-scale needs, such as maintaining peak capability when available installed capacity could be exceeded by unusual demand, or when a larger scale crisis incapacitates generation and transmission lines supplying remote areas. Pre-staging mobile power systems near substations in the remote end of a transmission system would allow for powering critical infrastructure and essential services in these locations. For instance, the severity of blackouts that result from shutting down transmission lines to prevent wildfires can be reduced with the use of mobile units.

To realize mobile gas turbines’ potential, plan every aspect of their use: plotting where units will be used in various circumstances, ensuring you’ll be able to transport them and practicing setting them up. This equipment typically weighs around 80 metric tons, so it’s critical to map out which trucks and roads you can use. And make sure you’ll be able to connect to a part of the grid that will accept the generator’s voltage — the FT8 MOBILEPAC unit operates at 13.8 kilovolts — with appropriate transformers and the means to isolate them in the event of a problem. It’s also important to find, or develop, sites with readily available natural gas, kerosene or propane to fuel the unit for extended periods of time.

Foster a “what-if”mindsetThis new culture of preparedness involves habitually asking“What if?” to uncover new opportunities for preparation. When people open their minds to that question, when they anticipate surprises, learn from the past and prepare for the gamut of possibilities, they’re in a stronger position to handle crises.

 You and the stakeholders of the priority functions in your area may feel that the response needed during an emergency is well understood. Challenge your assumptions. Utilities need to be prepared to step in at water treatment and water supply facilities, police and fire stations, and hospitals if their backup systems fail or if an emergency lasts an especially long time.

Many utilities’ emergency preparations are not developed around these scenarios. For example, you know that a hospital’s power supply is a matter of life and death. But do you know how long hospitals in your area can operate on backup power? What if a disaster destroyed their backup systems? What would happen then?

Water treatment and supply facilities are essential, but because of their backup systems and emergency procedures, they are often not considered in utilities’ emergency planning. Contamination of a city’s water quickly and severely undermines its ability to recover in a crisis. Utilities should collaborate on an ongoing basis with water facility operators to prepare for emergencies beyond those accounted for in their designs.Working together, they’ll be better positioned to keep a region on its feet in the days and weeks following disasters that exceed their designs’ assumptions.

Work directly with these priority players to address the what-ifs—to find out who has backup generators, how they’re fueled and how long the fuel will last. Create a log that includes information about where all of the critical players are, the details of their power supplies and how they connect to the grid, and make sure everyone who needs access has it and knows where to find the log. Determine and list the resources you would need to provide if the facilities were to lose power and how you’d deliver those resources and reconnect the providers. I recommend checking in with these key entities every 6to 12 months to ensure that your information stays up to date.

Preparation will take an investment of time and resources. This work is not optional.

(Sean Eagleton is manager of electrical engineering at PW Power Systems in Glastonbury, Connecticut)