Power restoration is not an engineering problem

By: Ray Williams

Have you ever been affected by a major power outage? Probably. It seems most of us have, at one time or another. Why is it then, that after the outage someone comes along and writes a report that concludes that the power provider adhered to industry standards, and generally did the best that could be done under the circumstances? Is it really true that major outages and delays in restoration are part of the price we pay for the services we receive? Probably not.

It’s no surprise that technically-oriented organizations, like power suppliers, often bridle at outside interference, given that they have the expertise, obvious responsibilities, and the resources. They also have the investment.  So when a major outage occurs, they implement their restoration activities in accordance with priorities established well in advance. Usually they get high marks for this from the reviewing bodies, even though significant components of the community do not see power restored in an acceptably short period. From the utility perspective they did well; from the community perspective, they were negligent and uncaring. Why?

A major part of the problem is that utilities see the task as restoring power, whereas the real task is to restore a functioning community. So, for example, the utility sends a crew to a site of downed wires and is thwarted by the downed or dangerous trees, while somewhere else a community’s public works crew tries to address debris and gets stalled by wires thought to be live. Had the utility planned and trained and exercised with the community, and in short approached the problem as one of jointly restoring the functioning of the community, horror stories like the above would be less frequent.

Similarly, as I mentioned, the utility restores power in accordance with priorities established in advance.  Naturally police, fire and hospital services get priority, but at some point it pretty much gets down to the greatest good for the greatest number. Thus utilities are surprised when community leaders criticize them for the priorities they pursued. Much of that criticism could be avoided by meeting with community leaders and setting restoration priorities together. After all, disasters disturb external relationships, and make priorities established within an organization inadequate.

Corporate efforts alone, including the mutual aid arrangements utilities justifiably take pride in, are usually insufficient in most major disaster events. Nevertheless and unfortunately, utilities often fail to effectively coordinate their planning with the communities they provide power to. Focusing on their own daily responsibilities and taking pride in their record of service and safety, they tend to forget that public perception is dramatically influenced by a disaster, and all the good work they do daily counts for little if their response is (or is considered to be) inadequate to restore the community to a functioning organism.

But it’s not just planning and setting priorities that benefit from this broader conception of restoration. Exercises provide training of participants, improvement of plans, testing of concepts and equipment, and, notably, personal connections among the various response and recovery elements.  So, given that electrical utilities provide virtually every organization the element it needs to function properly, you’d expect utilities to welcome and actively participate in major community, state and federal exercises.  But that was not what we found when James Lee Witt Associates examined the response of major utilities to a multi-state outage on the US east coast. My experience in the US Northwest also leads me to believe consistent and effective utility participation in exercises remains a goal.

We can illustrate the relationship of the utility to the community in another way.  Utilities normally can trim or remove trees as necessary to provide safe continuous electrical service. But unless they cherish conflict, they need to act in a way that recognizes the role of trees in shading and beautifying the local environment, in reducing rapid rain runoff, in fostering biodiversity, in cleansing the air and in global warming. Quality of life and goodwill considerations must be factored into a utility’s tree-management program, as there are complex community interests involved.  Just as disasters make a utility’s narrow vision painful for the community, so also a focus on the community is important day-to-day, as this tree-management example illustrates.

Utilities would be well advised to remember that, in a major disaster, politicians and others often look around for someone to blame. Sad but true.  Until utilities act day-to-day on the idea that a major outage is a community event, and plan and exercise accordingly, their response and restoration efforts may well be considered inadequate by those who represent the community. Seeing major power outages as a utility event, and restoration as a utility responsibility, is a failure of mitigation.

Ray Williams has worked in the field of emergency management since 1974.  For twelve years he was Deputy Regional Director of FEMA in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.  He was Project Director for James Lee Witt Associates’ 2003 review of power provider response to Hurricane Isabel.