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Utility Company Responders - Restoring Critical Services

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Natural Gas, Electric Power, and Water. At the Ready fist discussed the role of utilities providers as first responders in the June 2013 Issue. In the article we pointed to a desire by the Obama Administration to categorize utility companies as first responders. We did a little digging around, and cannot find a direct classification of utility companies as first responders, however, there is a dictionary definition on the web that encompasses the work of utilities as well as the “traditional” responder:

First Responder “someone designated or trained to respond to an emergency”.

An April 2013 article from Electric Power Online, a website of the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers, explains the critical role of utility companies as first responders:

“When they hear the words "first responders," most people probably draw upon images of safety officers and firefighters rescuing citizens in trouble. But when trouble comes in the gales of frequent and freakish storms, the first responders are often tree trimmers wielding chainsaws or utility linemen hanging out of bucket trucks to clear toppled trees and lift lines to let the ambulances and fire trucks in.”

Even without an “official” designation (that we found anyway, if someone has the documentation, please send it our way), job descriptions for many utility company positions include:

“Responds to, evaluates, investigates, secures, troubleshoots, and mitigates customer complaints and serves as first responder to emergency calls for service; analyzes utility problems and determines immediate and time sensitive corrective actions; uses inspection equipment to identify causes completes required documentation and reports.

The utilities, generally electric power, natural gas, water and wastewater are all included in the FEMA matrix for their Emergency Support Function designations. These 15 organized areas break down the federal agencies, such as the Department of Energy and the Centers for Disease Control designated to work with the local areas struck by disaster. The Emergency Support Function matrix can be found here.

Responder networks within the Utilities

Below the federal level, the utility organizations have an extensive network of mutual aid agreements and systems in place to restore services as quickly as possible. Regional Mutual Assistance Groups have been designed by the Electric Power providers across the nation. An article by Cathy Swirbul in the March-April 2006 issue of the Public Power, the magazine for the American Public Power Association describes the depth of planning and preparation that allowed restoration of electric power after fierce storms.

Another resource for understanding the restoration of electricity to communities is found in a booklet, available online, “Understanding the Electric Power Industry’s Response and Restoration Process”, which is published by the Edison Electric Institute (page 3 has a great graphic on the priority and order followed when reestablishing electrical service)

Within the water utility networks, the WARN network of mutual aid provides rapid response to disaster to restore critical drinking water to communities.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control, the danger to drinking water is escalated in disasters where wastewater networks are damaged and mix with potable water or are absorbed into the soil fouling natural sources of fresh water. The extensive plan to protect and restore water can be found in the Environmental Protection Agency Emergency/ Incident Planning, Recovery and Resources page

Natural gas lines are the cause of “About one in four fires after an earthquake.” The flow of natural gas must be capped before firefighting efforts can be completely effective. Crews must dig to uncover the lines, and cap them at the source. Dangerous work. In California, to help prevent gas line rupture in individual homes, “A natural gas seismic shut-off valve automatically shuts off your gas service when an earthquake of a sufficient magnitude occurs at your home's location.” Main gas lines are still vulnerable to these disasters.

It is now recognized that utility workers, similarly to other first responders, are vulnerable to exhaustion, stress, injury, while working after a disaster. These trades are specialized and require licensed professionals to ensure the safety of the community when the power, gas, or water starts to run to homes. The Center for Disease control and Prevention maintains a website for first responders covering Worker Health and Safety.

This resource covers immunizations recommended for workers in a disaster cleanup role, and the personal protective equipment to be worn while working in those areas. “Most major disaster responses involve multiple, diverse responders and response agencies; include unusual and intense hazard exposures; and occur over large areas and extended time periods.” A publication, issued by the Department of Health and Human Safety (DHS) with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Disaster Recommendations for Emergency Worker Safety & Health

The Future for Utilities in Disaster Recovery

Collaboration between traditional first responder organizations and utilities at the local level should include training exercises for mass disasters with all agencies expected to respond. A news story from April 2015 in Northern New York discusses how the traditional first responders and the utilities must work together to map out a disaster plan.

Robotics may soon play a critical role in helping keep utility workers safe, efficient and more effective in restoring services. Work done by the Electric Power Research Institute examined the utility of drones in in powerline inspection, “Airborne Inventory and Inspection of Transmission Lines: Unmanned Airborne Vehicle (UAV)” This research project by EPRI concluded, “Researchers concluded the use of drones could cut utility costs and improve worker safety, both for routine inspections and for surveying damage to energy networks after natural disasters.”

EPRI is also developing “Ti” a Transmission Line Inspection Robot.

Resources for the Community

One of the most difficult tasks after a disaster is managing expectations for the community residents affected. Why isn’t the power on yet? Why can’t I just go home? Are frequently asked by people who do not understand the real dangers of returning to uninhabitable homes and offices. Several guides are available that community leaders should make available for planning for and then actions to take after a disaster. is the comprehensive website for all planning and preparedness for families and businesses. Every community should ensure that residents know of this site, and understand what information is available. Many communities hold “preparedness” days, where weather radios are tuned, classes are held for residents, and information to notify responders of residents with special needs (such as stickers for windows).

Other websites and resources that offer guidance for residents include the pamphlet “Returning Home” by the EPA, and an online guide by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association has with information and FAQs for dealing with damaged electrical equipment, with POCs for many manufacturer certified technicians.

For rural areas with less than 10,000 residents, the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development Agency has emergency grants available to assist the community is restoring safe drinking water. As of this writing, a federal declaration of disaster is not required for communities to seek assistance.

A list of state directors can be found here

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