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. As an industry, we are taking steps to improve this process.
National Emergency Response
Improving the coordinated response to power interruptions affecting multiple regions of the United States is the purpose of the National Response Event (NRE) framework, which AEP had a leadership role in developing. The framework’s intent is to ensure that resources are allocated to restore power as quickly and as safely as possible in an efficient, coordinated way.
A National Response Executive Committee composed of senior utility executives from all regions of the country 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 were consolidated to allow better coordination of resources. 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.
AEP’s Emergency Response Plan
As the industry seeks to improve emergency response following large-scale outages, AEP is simultaneously updating its own plans that take into consideration the lessons learned of the last few years. Our Emergency Response Plan (ERP) is being rolled out across AEP and will be fully implemented in 2015.
A key element of the ERP is establishing 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.
In 2014, the Public Utilities Commission of Texas adopted requirements that electric utilities in the state include in their emergency operations plans ICS training for emergency events. This new mandate, affecting transmission and distribution facilities, re-emphasizes the importance and relevance of ICS. We believe ICS is the way of the future for electric utilities, especially during emergency events that involve other outside agencies.
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 fast, accurate and timely information about when their service will be restored. A customer alert system that provides information on the status of outages rolled out in March 2015 to all AEP customers.
Technology will increasingly play a role in our assessments of damage during an outage. A damage assessment tool being developed will allow damage inspectors to upload their assessments to a cloud database. This will eliminate paper evaluations, allow contractors working for AEP to help with damage assessments and allow us to dispatch crews more efficiently. Most importantly, it will improve our ability to estimate time for restoration that customers want most.