When a major event occurs that produces widespread outages, the electric industry mobilizes to deliver resources, supplies and crews needed to get the lights back on safely and quickly. This practice of mutual assistance, which dates to the 1950s, helps utilities mitigate the risks and costs of major outages through sharing of resources. The utilities that seek assistance pay the costs of the utilities and contractors providing labor and equipment.
National Emergency Response
Improving the coordinated response to power interruptions affecting multiple regions of the United States is the purpose of the newly formed National Response Event (NRE) framework, which AEP had a leadership role in developing last year. Approximately three dozen utilities contributed to this effort. The goal is to ensure that resources are allocated to restore power as quickly and as safely as possible in an efficient, coordinated way.
A new National Response Executive Committee composed of senior utility executives from all regions of the country will govern the NRE process, and a National Mutual Assistance Resource Team will pool and allocate resources to best meet restoration needs in a major event. Three regional mutual assistance groups (RMAGs) in the Northeast have been consolidated to allow better coordination of resources. Superstorm Sandy demonstrated that having too many RMAGs can impede restoration progress, so the number of RMAGs nationwide was reduced from nine to seven. When an NRE is declared, the RMAGs will act as one entity to ensure the highest level of resource coordination.
The NRE framework was developed in partnership with federal and state agencies to improve the flow of information between utilities and government emergency personnel, expedite movement of resources across state and international borders, and leverage the logistical support and security capabilities that the military can provide in emergencies.
Federal, state and local officials have voiced support for the NRE approach. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners passed a resolution endorsing it in November 2013. States can help support this approach by backing utility efforts to increase system hardening, install micro grids in strategic locations and use smart grid technologies.
AEP’s Emergency Response Plan
As the industry seeks to improve emergency response in the wake of storm-related widespread outages, AEP is simultaneously taking a close look at its own plans and developing an updated plan that considers the lessons learned of the last few years and recommendations from the Emergency Response Planning Team. Our Emergency Response Plan (ERP) is expected to be fully implemented by early 2015.
ERP traces its roots to the critical reviews of utilities’ restoration activities by regulatory commissions in New York, Maryland and Connecticut after major Northeast storms several years ago – specifically, Hurricane Irene and the Nor’easter of October 2009. These reviews prompted AEP to conduct its own assessment of storm restoration practices to determine areas of, and set goals for, improvement. An ERP team representing all operating companies and various business units is charged with implementing the recommendations resulting from that review.
A key element of the ERP is establishment of an Incident Command System (ICS), a nationally known crisis management tool used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and increasingly adopted by industry, including utilities. ICS will make it easier for our employees to do their jobs by improving management efficiency, reducing redundancy and more clearly defining the focus of employees’ responsibilities during emergency response. It also will improve communications with first responders and emergency management agencies because we often will be using the same chain-of-command structures and terminology that they use.
Other components of the ERP are technology and process improvements that will enhance customer satisfaction and communications by providing the frequent and accurate information the public wants. During power outages, customers want to know as precisely as possible how soon their service will return. An online mobile alert system that provides customers with information on the status of outages is being rolled out in 2014. Ideally, this alert system could be used for other customer communications, such as due dates for bills, notification of overdue bills, and timing of upcoming scheduled outages.