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Facing a Disaster: How Utilities Providers Prepare

The weather has been in the news a lot lately. These days, if we're relatively unconcerned when we hear newscasters mention outages, it's because we've experienced how quickly utility companies get things back on track. Sharon Fisher explains how these providers can restore service so rapidly.
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For utilities providers, 2005 has been what some would call an annus horribilis—a horrible year—what with two major hurricanes, as well as the usual flurry of tornadoes, snowstorms, ice storms, windstorms, wildfires, and so on, plus preparing for possible terrorist threats.

But to providers in major cities, even the ones thought to be most at risk for a disaster, it’s all par for the course. Those providers plan, prepare, and drill—and are probably the only people in the industry who hope that their work will never be used.

Planning for Disaster

Of course, the first step is to make a plan. In Washington, D.C., terrorism is certainly a concern. "We recognize the fishbowl we operate in and the responsibility we have to keep the government running," says Bob Dobkin, a spokesman for Pepco, which supplies 1.8 million customers in the Washington, D.C. area (up through Delaware) with electricity, and 100,000 customers in the Wilmington area with natural gas.

But the biggest problem in the coastal area is weather. "Any storm is a potential disaster," Dobkin says. "Everyone in the company has an assignment in a storm situation." Many Pepco employees work 12-hour shifts until power is restored. For example, because there are never enough customer service employees in a storm situation, a number of people have been trained to step in as additional customer service staff—including having their computers already hooked up to the customer service system, according to Dobkin. Other employees have assignments to look for outages and downed trees, and are trained in how to tie off a downed wire until a lineman can come to restore the line.

Storms that affect at least 20,000 people could require activation of the emergency command center, Dobkin notes, but it might not be needed if service to those customers can be restored in a short time.

Pacific Gas " Electric (PG"E), which has to deal with everything from turkeys flying into power lines to tractors or collapsed hillsides taking out gas lines, also has emergency command centers. "There are 18 operational emergency centers [OECs] throughout northern and central California," reports Lloyd Coker, a PG"E spokesman based in Santa Rosa, CA, whose area includes the Santa Rosa, Eureka, and Novato OECs. "If we have a storm—and we do every winter—and it affects anywhere from Eureka to the Golden Gate Bridge, that’s my territory." Coker explains the company’s four-level plan as follows:

  • Level 1: Local emergency. Involves a small number of customers and is generally handled by one operations company, with minimal impact on the headquarters in San Francisco.
  • Level 2: Area-wide emergency. PG"E has eight areas, each of which comprises several counties. This could be a car hitting a power pole, major flooding, a forest fire, or an area-wide storm, Coker said.
  • Level 3: Multiple-area emergency. This level includes storms that move from one area to another. "When that happens, the operational center in San Francisco opens up," Coker says, as well as all 18 OECs, if only for communications and monitoring.
  • Level 4: Company-wide emergency. This level takes in any situation that "impacts the company and/or our customers’ ability to conduct normal business functions and requires the full mobilization of company resources to respond." In 23 years at the company, Coker has seen a level 4 emergency only once: the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.


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