Public Power Magazine

Mutual Aid Comes of Age


From the March-April 2012 issue (Vol. 70, No. 2) of Public Power

Originally published March-April 2012

By William Atkinson
March-April 2012
A series of tornadoes in spring 2011 devastated sections of Chattanooga, Tenn Photos courtesy of Leona Draper/IMEA.

In decades past, most public power utilities called on friends in nearby utilities for assistance when they were recovering from storm damage. While the concept worked to a degree, it was far from maximally effective and comprehensive. These days, though, thanks to the strong networks, mutual aid agreements are formidable weapons in the arsenals of most public power utilities.

When Mike Hyland joined the staff of the American Public Power Association in 1996, one of his first goals was to improve mutual aid agreements for APPA members. The effort got a big boost when APPA launched the Lineworkers Rodeo in 2001. "For years, APPA has had engineering meetings, legal meetings, and other management meetings," said Hyland, who is senior vice president for engineering services. "With the advent of the rodeo, we started to get foremen and line superintendents involved. A network began to build of people who actually work the front lines during storms." Now, if there is a widespread outage, these people can call or email their counterparts in other utilities to ask for help.

While a number of mutual aid agreements are coordinated by state associations, a lot of public power utilities do it on their own. Much of this depends on where a utility is located. "For example, in Texas, mutual aid agreements cross utility ownership," said Hyland. The group is composed of the investor-owned, cooperative and municipally owned utilities.

Most utilities manage their mutual aid agreements with the concentric ring concept. A utility needing help will contact the utilities in the first ring, then, if they still need more help, the second, and so on.

Years ago, before there was much formal activity in creating mutual aid agreements, APPA was the first place utilities would call if they needed crews. "I had the database of names of people who might be available and willing to help," said Hyland. "If someone needed help, they would call me. I would send an email to hundreds of utilities, and they would respond to me as to whether they were in a position to be able to provide help." Within the first hour or so, Hyland would then forward those names to the utility that needed help.

These days, APPA usually ends up being the last resort. Members call only if they have exhausted all of the utilities within their rings, or if they don't participate in a mutual aid agreement.

When Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast in August 2011, Hyland fielded a number of calls from utilities volunteering to help. "I actually hadn't received any calls seeking assistance, because the utilities that needed help already had their own networks in place and had already called utilities in their first and second rings for assistance," he said.

If a utility is not involved in some type of mutual aid agreement today, it probably has not faced the need for help. "I know of a couple of utilities that were not involved in mutual aid at all until they had bad storms and received a lot of help," he said. "Now, they are among the first to go out and help other utilities."

Mutual aid agreements were strengthened over the last decade when APPA worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to create the APPA-NRECA Mutual Aid Agreement. "Almost every co-op has signed it, about 880, and almost 1,000 public power utilities have signed it," said Hyland. It is a one-page document that spells out expectations for mutual aid. No utility is required to provide assistance to another utility when asked. However, if it does decide to help, it does so with the expectation that its crews will be paid, whether or not FEMA has declared an emergency. The document was created chiefly to address the payment issue, but it shed light on the need for a more comprehensive mutual aid agreement.

Utilities and state associations should create their own detailed contracts, Hyland said. "It is very important to lay out specifically what you expect," he said. This isn't something that APPA can really do. There is no way to create a universal agreement that also contains all of the details that each utility considers to be important. "Everyone needs to have one that meets their specific situation and needs."

One state association executive, for example, has a multi-page, detailed document that covers all of the relevant issues, such as pay rates, when overtime kicks in, union and non-union issues, equipment brought in by utilities providing assistance, the number of people on the crew, the number of supervisors, etc.

As utilities become more familiar with the participants in their mutual aid networks, they get to know which utilities have the best mutual aid experience . "As a result, when they have a need, they may contact people in their first ring, followed by utilities in the third ring who they have worked with in the past, before they call utilities in the second ring, where the mutual aid working relationship might not be established," Hyland said.

Three well-organized state and regional mutual aid programs were utilized during Hurricane Irene and the unexpected snowdrop in the fall of 2011. These programs are run by Electric Cities of Georgia, the Indiana Municipal Electric Association, and the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association.

Indiana—The Indiana Municipal Electric Association modeled its mutual aid agreement after a sample agreement developed by APPA. All 72 municipalities in Indiana have signed the agreement. "We don't go anywhere out of state unless we have signed a copy of the APPA mutual aid agreement," said Executive Director Leona Draper. "If we are dispatched to a utility that is not a member of APPA, such as a co-op or IOU, I fax them a copy of the agreement, and they need to sign it before we will dispatch."

IMEA is also a member of the Southeast Mutual Aid Coordination Group. "There is a coordinator in every member state, and we meet once a year," said Draper. "We can also get in touch with each other very quickly if the need arises. There are a few of us who have been doing this enough years that we just know what to do so we count on each other to get it done."

The key to mutual aid is keeping information current. Draper emphasized that it is not a one-time thing where you set up an agreement and then file it away. "Every year, our mutual aid committee updates all of the information, including updated contact information and equipment information," she said. Given Indiana's central geographic location, the state is susceptible to severe weather year round, Draper said.

"The mutual aid program keeps us busy," she said. For example, during the spring of 2011 alone, besides being dispatched in-state, IMEA crews were dispatched to Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. Crews also recently went to Maryland and New Jersey.

IMEA crews were dispatched to help with disaster relief in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Maryland and New Jersey in the last year.

As a state coordinator, it is Draper's job to travel to the disaster areas and handle logistics for the line crews, seeing to housing, food, drinks, first aid, dry socks and other everyday needs. Crews may also need material, such as transformers and connectors, delivered to specific sites. Draper is the point of contact between the utility that is being helped and the crews, allowing them to spend their time working on the lines rather than talking to the logistics personnel.

Tennessee Valley Public Power Association—Mutual aid activities of the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association are handled by a subcommittee of the association's Operations Coordination Committee. When widespread emergencies occur, members of the TVPPA Emergency Response Team report to the Tennessee Valley Authority's Transmission Emergency Operations Center, where transmission restoration activities are coordinated, said Danette Scudder, member services manager for TVPPA. "However, we still manage the distribution response ourselves."

If a TVPPA member needs help with restoration, the utility contacts Scudder to request assistance. She identifies the utility's location, and then draws concentric circles around it, first calling member utilities that are closest, to see if they have the resources available." Basically, I put the point people at each utility in touch with each other," said Scudder. "However, I don't get involved in the details. In fact, TVPPA doesn't necessarily hold any of the mutual aid agreements on file. Those are typically held by APPA and the local utility."

Many TVPPA members have developed their own, more extensive mutual aid agreements that they use in conjunction with the APPA-NRECA Mutual Aid Agreement, Scudder said. "We are in the process of developing an emergency response/mutual aid best practices manual and training program. Because TVPPA represents cooperative and municipally owned utilities, we face many of the same challenges APPA does in creating a single, comprehensive document that could address the policies and practices of all of our members. Instead, we try to facilitate communication and coordination among our members so they can concentrate on what's most important—keeping the lights on and maintaining control based on the needs of their system."

TVPPA also participates in larger networks with other public power associations, and, in some cases, with other individual utilities, if its own members cannot meet emergency needs. "In the spring of 2011, for example, we had widespread tornado activity in our area, and most of our member utilities were busy repairing their own infrastructure," she said. "They weren't able to go out and help other utilities."

Electric Cities of Georgia—Electric Cities of Georgia has a detailed mutual aid agreement. "One disadvantage to this is that it can take awhile to read and sign for a utility that needs our help right away and isn't familiar with it," said Jon Beasley, superintendent, training and safety. "Of course, all of our Georgia members have had their attorneys look at it and had their city councils sign off on it in advance."

As a result, when ECG works in-state, it uses its multi-page agreement. However, when it works out of state, it uses the one-page generic APPA agreement, which most of the out-of-state public power and co-op utilities have already signed anyway. "However, when we do work out-of-state, we will bill according to our in-state agreement," he said.

Beasley, who has had years of hands-on experience with mutual aid efforts, offers a number of recommendations for smooth mutual aid operations:

Before a storm hits, if you have knowledge of it in advance, such as you would with hurricanes, address logistics, such as housing and food.

Immediately after a storm hits, get qualified people out in the field to assess the damage and determine whether the utility will need outside help. "You shouldn't end up waiting a day or two to decide that you need outside help," said Beasley. Failure to make a quick assessment will delay restoration of power to customers and could mean no crews are available to help with repairs.

Select a specific date each year, and update your logistics information, such as contact people at the motels and restaurants. Confirm information and update the agreements. Some utilities, instead of working with restaurants, have contracts with caterers to bring food to where the crews are staying.

It is also important to get updated copies of road maps of your territory. A good source for these may be your chamber of commerce. "You should arrange to have a map for each truck that will be arriving," he said. Then, on each map, with a highlighter, highlight your substations and the hospital. That way, if a crew member is working with a chainsaw and it kicks back on him, the crew may be able to get him to the hospital quicker that the EMTs. It is also a good idea to highlight approved fueling places, so crews know where they can refuel.

Having a good "birddog" is important, too, said Beasley. "If you are able to put an experienced crew member with each out-of-town crew, that is excellent," he said. That person not only knows the roads, but also knows the design of the local distribution system. Another option would be to bring in retired linemen who know the system well. "These people know the back roads and all of the details of the system," he said. Of course, then, as part of your annual planning, you should make sure you have updated contact information for your retired people, so you can reach them quickly if a storm hits. If none of these people are available, then maybe you can assign a meter reader to each crew. "At least this person will know the streets, if not the details of the system," he said. If you don't have anyone available, then at least be able to provide each crew with a system map.

Materials management is also important. According to Beasley, some utilities don't have enough material on hand in a large storm, while others have enough at the start; however, they don't have anyone watching the material as it is taken by the crews, so the first crews that come in take too much. Then, there is nothing left for the crews that come in later. "This happened during Katrina," said Beasley. "When something like this happens, crews have to start stripping down the old stuff and use it, and that really slows things down."

It is also important to work out laundry issues ahead of time. "Have someone available to do laundry, if crews are going to be around for a week or more," he said. The easiest way to do this is to work out an arrangement with a local laundromat.

It is also a good idea to be able to do a "storm briefing" each morning for all of the crews. This can help keep the crews updated on everything, including how many more days they may need to be there.

Beasley has gone to some places where utility people know him already, and they have all of these things ready to go. "I've gone other places where they're not as well prepared," he said. "They don't even have extra two-way radios for communication. This makes it difficult. However, if they can provide a crew with a good birddog, they maybe can get away without providing a radio."

APPA's Hyland finds it amusing when someone says public power utilities are too small to take care of themselves. "With the way the strength of the mutual aid agreement networks have grown over the years, this is totally untrue," he said. "Because there are so many of us, we are like an army. When we need to gather, we can move quickly and saturate an area."

Public power utilities don't brag about the way they help other utilities. "While IOUs may take out full-page ads to tell the world about how they helped other utilities during an outage, APPA members don't," he said. They quietly help other APPA members put the lights back on, and then go and help co-ops or IOUs get their lights back on, all with little fanfare.

"I have been in the public power industry for 10 years," said TVPPA's Scudder. "I am always astounded at the level of professionalism, generosity, and willingness of public power utilities to help other utilities, whether those utilities are 20 miles away or 200 miles away."

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March-April 2012
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