Strenghtening 9-1-1 Systems

Tim RieckerThis morning, Government Security News (GSN) published an article regarding the FCC‘s examination of last June’s derecho storms that severely impacted Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, DC, and Ohio.  The FCC looked into the long-lasting down time of 9-1-1 call centers in these impacted areas, provided comment, as well as recommendations – which largely are pretty sound.

If you’ve read earlier blog posts of mine, you’ll know that I more-often-than-not tend to defend utility companies.  Yes, we can all be better prepared, but I believe that sometimes the expectations are unreasonably high, especially with wide-spread disasters.   Also, utility companies are just that – companies – their primary goal is to be profitable.  With this in mind, there comes a point when the cost of mitigation may, at least in the short-term, make them unprofitable.  While in theory I would say ‘suck it up’, share holders tend not to see things that way.  So that does leave us with a bit of a quandary.

9-1-1 is an absolutely critical service.  Outages and disturbances in these systems occur every day throughout the nation, but are typically short in duration.  The derecho left 3.6 million people with interrupted 9-1-1 service, some for many days.  While there are general infrastructure issues that result from storms that can impact a utility system, this was compounded after the derecho by continued high winds for a few days, making many repairs impossible.  The FCC report cites, however, a few easy fixes that could have greatly reduced both the number of outages and the duration of many of these outages – including emergency power generators at central offices and distribution hubs.  There were also planning gaps that were discovered, that, once addressed should help reduce impacts by both number and duration.  I believe we also need to harness the technology we have to discover redundancies and back-ups that can be implemented in the even of future system failures.

Every incident is a learning experience for all involved – and hopefully even for those fortunate enough to not be involved.  The challenge is accepting these lessons learned and applying them to improve our measure of preparedness, increasing our awareness, and better enabling us to respond more effectively the next time around.

What lessons have you learned from disasters???

Power Restoration Post-Disaster: How Long is Too Long?

Homeland Security Today ran an article reprinted from an AP article titled Power Outage Time After Sandy Not Extraordinary.  The article outlines an AP analysis of outage times from other hurricanes and storms and compares these to the duration of outages experienced by customers as a result of Hurricane Sandy.  To be honest, I’m not sure that the science behind this study is totally sound (it appears they compared only the duration of outages) as there are many factors involved in such a comparison to make it meaningful (such as type and age of infrastructure, damage to infrastructure, strength of hurricane, etc.).  That said, their apples to oranges comparison does lead to some legitimate statements.

I’m certainly not intending to diminish the issues associated with prolonged power outages.  For many it is an inconvenience (and we are extremely over reliant on electrical energy), but it does impact the health and well-being of a good portion of our population – especially in temperature extremes.  Through my experience in emergency management, however, it seems that many people are quite vocal about even the shortest of power outages.  These complaints quickly become political.  I even recall several years ago being pressured by a governor to ensure that power was restored prior to the Superbowl.  Yes, these things are important – practically and politically – but we also need to be realistic and understanding of the situation.

That situation comes down to the battle being fought by the utility companies.  Energy utilities are regulated, meaning that they are constantly bombarded by politicians and special interest groups.  Part of this regulation requires them to have disaster plans in place to address emergency outages and restoration.  With the experience of working 19 federally declared disasters, I’ve seen utility companies in action time and again – and to be completely honest, they impress the hell out of me.  They mobilize massive fleets of not only their own people, vehicles, and equipment but also those of other utility companies from far and wide as part of an elaborate and often used mutual aid system.  These crews need to be supervised, fed, housed, and supplied.  The logistics of power restoration is a massive undertaking – especially after a regional event such as Hurricane Sandy, where companies up the coast and throughout the northeast are all competing for the same resources – especially utility poles.

Utilities conduct restoration efforts in priority, first addressing urgent needs, such as hospitals and nursing homes, while also trying to effect repairs of their energy superstructure, such as primary distribution lines and substations.  After that, they need to literally examine every line in their system – with priority given to those that feed larger populations.  This takes time.  Consider that they are initially fighting lingering weather conditions and may be held back by additional foul weather such as heavy rains and high winds which can hinder their efforts and even set them back with additional damages.  After a storm, they are also working on clearing debris so they can safely access their infrastructure.  Combined, this is a lot of time, effort, and resources – all of which costs a lot of money.

There is no benefit to a utility company dragging their feet on a restoration effort.  Given the expenses and the negative press, they want to finish it as quickly as they possibly can.  Can they do it better?  Of course – there is always room for improvement.  The article says that “…Sandy caused 8.5 million power outages across 21 states, the highest outage total ever.”

The utility restoration effort found an unlikely ally – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – who applauded their work.  A lesson other governors should probably learn.  Let’s work with them and support their efforts instead of being so quick to criticize.