Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Back on the Grid – Utility Companies as First Responders

EMA Emergency Management, EMS Emergency Medical Services, FD Fire Departments, Law Enforcement, badges article logo label

   Catastrophic incidents, whether the result of natural disaster, error, or human malice, are not over when the initial event has passed. The fallout from these terrible circumstances continues to impact the lives of the surrounding community, and enabling a sense of routine and security is vital to restoring a sense of normalcy. As demonstrated in the aftermath of the tornadoes in Oklahoma and Superstorm Sandy in the northeastern United States, Canada, and the Caribbean, one of the important factors in safety and comfort is the restoration of utility services, especially those providing electricity and clean water. In addition to their importance in providing heating, cooling, communication resources, and healthcare to the general population, these services are vital to the performance of first responder teams and government agencies conducting operations in the event of an emergency.

   In October of 2012, Superstorm Sandy devastated the east coast, causing 285 fatalities, 8.5 million cubic yards of debris (1), and a loss of power to more than 8 million homes (2). This outage created a crisis in access to refrigeration, lighting, and phone and internet contact, leaving residents struggling with basic needs and cut off from outside communication. Lack of immediate access to electricity also handicapped the ability of police, fire, EMS, and healthcare agencies to conduct rescue and management tasks. Localized backup generators provided temporary relief and assistance but were not fully reliable, as seen in the power failure in New York’s Langone Medical Center, which required the evacuation of more than 200 patients, some on battery-powered respirators. In contrast, rapid, systematic access was demonstrated in New Jersey’s Seaside Heights Burroughs, which quickly restored power to the community after the storm through large diesel generators purchased to offset electricity costs during peak usage hours. The generators were used for three weeks to power EMS, police, and fire stations; house responders close to ongoing operations; and rescue emergency personnel and residents who were stranded after the initial outage.

   The development of mutual aid agreements between utility agencies is currently conducted at the local level, often directly between utility companies without widespread standardization in the event of a large-scale emergency response (3). This can lead to delays in access and jurisdictional confusion, especially when out-of-state agencies provide emergency assistance. After the Superstorm in New Jersey, a utility crew from Alabama was initially denied access to a site because of confusion over documentation; the situation was eventually resolved, but the misunderstanding cost time and resources to the crew on site, and to the workers attempting to provide assistance. Aid agreements are not a small-scale concern; in New York alone, 57,000 utility workers from 30 states and Canada traveled to provide assistance in restoring power to the city (4), some working 18-hour days and sleeping in vehicles or on cots during the operations (5).

   To facilitate collaboration and expedite repairs, one solution is the classification of utility companies as first responders in the event of a disaster. This step was reportedly proposed by the Obama Administration in a meeting at the Department of Energy in May, which included representatives from utility industry, trade organizations, and government officials. A Federal precedent exists for this form of categorization; the National Incident Management System, operated by FEMA, categorizes public works water and wastewater assessment and repair teams as “Tier 1 Resources,” placing them alongside EMS, EMA, law enforcement, healthcare, and fire agencies. If this categorization were to be universally adopted, it could reduce the need for state-specific permits, prevent redundant stops, and ease the travel of support services coming from Canadian companies.

Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN) Logo   Recognizing utility workers as first responders is also supported by a recent after-action report on Superstorm Sandy issued by the Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN), managed by the non-profit American Water Works Association. The agency, which also monitors and coordinates information in interstate mutual aid operations between utility companies, cited the failure of some partnering response agencies to recognize water utility workers as first responders as a factor impeding clean water access. This lack of recognition led some crews to circumvent law enforcement restrictions by searching for other means of site access, such as hiking trails, in order to conduct repairs and ensure water service continuity. A preexisting framework clearly defining the role of workers and the access they require could have prevented this form of conflict between two sectors that are working toward the same end goal of public safety and disaster management. The report also listed the most prominent restriction in restoring water service as the lack of electricity available in disaster areas, highlighting the degree to which service management in these crises is interconnected.

   In the event of a disaster, the public, government agencies, and the private sector have a common goal: to minimize the impact of the crisis and to restore a sense of normalcy quickly and efficiently to the affected community. Accomplishing this can be a monumental task, and one that requires planning, foresight, communication, and collaboration between agencies. Classifying utility workers as first responders would remove one of the hurdles to effective management by providing consistency in the expectation of access to repairs, and facilitating the restoration of services that supplement the work of fire, police, EMS, and EMA agencies on scene.

1. 6 Months Report: Superstorm Sandy, Pre Disaster and Recovery, FEMA,
2. Superstorm Sandy by the Numbers: A Superstorm’s Statistics, One Month Later. TIME,
3. Mutual Aid Comes of Age, American Public Power Association,
5. Ibid
5. Superstorm Utility Crews Complain of Payroll Delay, Frank Eltman, Associated Press Big Story;

Click here to go back to the list of issues.