Much has been said and written about the relative fragility of the U.S. electric power infrastructure and the need to improve its reliability and resilience. The effects of large-scale power outages and the intense and urgent need for restoration have been highlighted by impacts of numerous natural (weather) incidents in just the past five years – for example, the derecho and “Superstorm” Sandy that affected the eastern United States in 2012. In order to foster maximum resilience capacity, a sound strategic approach to developing resilience will probably rest on some basic tenets and practices, including “making a list and checking it twice” – or maybe more often.
Providing Ground Support, Supply & Facilities
Perhaps the most significant challenges for managing response to major power disruptions will revolve around logistics of the response. The logistics section of the Incident Command System encompasses six elements: supply, facilities, ground support, communications, medical, and food. Each of which may be managed or supervised by a unit leader during a large-scale incident. Whether managed by a unit leader, branch director, or logistics section chief, the absence of provisions to provide each of these elements will severely hamper the response. Although communications, medical, and food are critical needs, critical logistics needs in the response and restoration operations following Superstorm Sandy revolved around ground support, supply, and facilities.
Zepheniah (Zeph) Cunningham was the incident commander for the National Park Service Eastern Incident Management Team during the initial response and recovery operations at more than 15 National Park sites in New York and New Jersey following the onslaught of Superstorm Sandy. That team was responsible for managing all operations at the assigned National Park Service locations, including the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island National Monument, and the Governor’s Island National Monument. In a personal interview with Cunningham on 12 November 2014, he stated, “Operations are simple, once the logistics challenges are resolved.” He noted a number of significant logistical challenges that could have confounded the best-intended operational initiatives.
In addition to basic operations, simply clearing access routes, removing debris caused by wind and water, and securing many national treasures across two states posed numerous challenges for the team and all responding personnel. For example, within days of the power disruption and the loss of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems at several national monument facilities, personnel noted the onset of mold and mildew around numerous irreplaceable artifacts. These findings significantly increased the urgency to respond and raised the priority of restoring power to many of those monuments. The Eastern Incident Management Team was suddenly confronted with the need to restore power sufficient to establish air handling and movement within many facilities, which necessitated the acquisition of a large number of portable generators and, more important, fuel to keep those generators operating.
In many parts of the country, individual citizens as well as emergency services organizations have had and have used generators for years to provide emergency power when needed. For example, in the mid-Atlantic region since the severe winter weather of the late 1990s, emergency generators have become standard equipment for many households as well as most emergency services facilities. However, in regions not affected as frequently or severely, emergency generators are not a staple for many. In fact, following Superstorm Sandy, the demand for portable generators throughout the region overwhelmed the supply chain.
For the National Park Service, in order to avoid depleting the locally available supply of portable generators, it became a matter of issuing an emergency procurement requisition from a major national retailer and sending transports to the distribution center several states away to pick up the equipment and return it to the sites needing the emergency power. Local emergency and public utilities/service operations have experienced similar challenges in obtaining portable generators in recent years.
Establishing a Fuel Supply Chain
Once the generator issue had been addressed, the next challenge encountered was establishing a fuel supply chain to operate those generators at each of the various sites. Ironically, as was seen on national television night after night, most commercial service stations had fuel but, because the power was out, they were unable to pump the fuel. For those facilities that had alternative power, the lines of cars seeking fuel were incredibly long. The Park Service, not wanting to adversely affect the limited fuel availability, chose to “import” its own fuel supplies, which revealed two additional challenges.
The first challenge encountered was complying with federal, state, and local laws regulating the transportation of hazardous commodities, particularly interstate transport of flammable products. After identifying the constraints on transportation, the Eastern Incident Management Team found it necessary to bring fuel tenders from distant sources and by way of some circuitous routes. However, after several days of deliberations, those arrangements were made and fuel was brought into the affected region to enable the Park Service operations to recommence and function efficiently.
The next challenge revolved around establishing approved dispensing operations. Once again, recognizing the importance of complying with all local and state laws concerning fuel dispensing facilities – local service stations must comply with the same laws in most states – the Park Service was required to establish required approach, access, fueling, and exit corridors. In simple terms, the fuel dispensing sites were required to mark and control traffic flow into and out of each fuel-dispensing location. Although that may seem simple, during these operations, it necessitated the procurement of huge quantities of traffic control devices – literally hundreds of basic orange traffic cones to direct traffic flow into and out of each dispensing site. Cunningham chuckled when reflecting on having to explain to superiors in Washington, D.C., his approval to order hundreds, perhaps thousands, of orange traffic cones in order to continue his assigned operations.
Each incident presents its own unique challenges, but there are commonalities as well. One lesson from these reflections is that, although response operations may appear simple on the surface, underlying factors – particularly those related to logistical support – can and should be identified and addressed from the outset and throughout an incident. According to Cunningham, should the need arise in the future, his team will make their lists and check them twice, based on new lessons learned, to make sure that operations as planned can be performed without unanticipated challenges. The National Incident Management System and basic Incident Command System provide a template and a direction that enable incident management organizations and personnel to develop systematic methodologies to adapt to challenges that, otherwise, may impede effective response operations.
Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.