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As hurricane season approaches, utility response to heed pandemic protocols


Utilities eye 'layered defense' to protect workforce

Smaller staging areas, other protocols planned

Sector constantly checking pulse of supply chain

With the Atlantic hurricane season just around the corner, utilities with vulnerable service territories are trying to anticipate any disaster recovery snags that may arise in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And updated protocols tested following severe weather that occurred in some parts of the US during the spring are changing what on-the-ground utility disaster recovery looks like this year.

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For example, under normal circumstances, a large base camp would be set up where the numerous utility workers who respond to a natural disaster can congregate to collect materials, eat and sleep. But now, utilities "want to break those large base camps up into smaller staging areas" to prevent crowding and enable social distancing, Stan Connally, executive vice president of operations for Southern Company Services, said Thursday on a media call held by the Edison Electric Institute.

"With respect to the protocols and the smaller staging areas, ... you need to think about the protection of the workforce as a layered defense," explained Scott Aaronson, vice president for security and preparedness at EEI and secretary of the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council.


Other aspects of that defense include the provision of personal protective equipment and testing — both of which all EEI members already are undertaking at some level, according to Aaronson. To ensure an adequate inventory of supplies, he said the ESCC is constantly checking the pulse of manufacturers and stakeholders at all levels to ensure that the industry does "not get caught flat-footed with supply chain deficiencies."

Utility workers also are being asked to conduct self-screenings before and during shifts, he added. Some utilities have their own on-staff medical professionals, while others may rely on their local healthcare system, Aaronson said.

But the industry has not yet determined the optimal number of COVID-19 tests it will need to have ready.

"If it's a really active [hurricane] season with an awful lot of need for testing, that's going to increase demand," Aaronson said. "EEI's members, through the [ESCC], are working closely to source tests from any place that we can."

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Technology also is playing a role in the attempt to pandemic-proof hurricane response, and it even may provide an added benefit by shortening response times.

"Normally, in a hurricane response, we have workers that respond to our area and we do a face-to-face safety briefing or a credentialing of those workers" before distributing their assignments, Connally said. But he noted that given the current situation, "we can do that remotely and with technology [and] have them go directly to the area where they'll need to be working."

Drones also may be deployed to assess and identify "where the hardest-hit areas are so that we can more efficiently respond," Aaronson added.

Another tactic that can be used to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus is to rearrange sleeping quarters. Instead of bunking two workers in the same room, new guidelines, codified in a 109-page resource guide recently developed by the ESCC, call for "single occupancy only in hotel [or] motel rooms, cottages, efficiency units, etc."


Earlier health scares related to illnesses such as SARS led to "really interesting thought exercises" that prompted continuity planners to draft pandemic protocols, Aaronson said. But because those initial protocols were not crafted to specifically respond to the immediate threat, the earlier guidance "had to evolve to [address] COVID-19," which "brought on new learnings that we all have incorporated into our plans," Connally said.

Connally explained that utilities in the South had a chance to try out the updated, health-conscious protocols when severe weather, including tornadoes and heavy rains, swept through their service territories during the recent Easter weekend. More than 1,000 workers from 10 states responded to calls for help as part of a mutual assistance program, and none of those people are known to have contracted the virus from their mission, according to Connally.

Following those storms, Connally said, impacted utilities conducted collaborative "after-action briefings" in order to further revise their procedures with COVID-19 in mind.

"I think that we're very prepared for the hurricane season that could come before us, again knowing that we can rely on our mutual assistance network to help us respond," Connally added.

As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a strong likelihood that the US will see an above-normal number of hurricanes spinning out of the Atlantic Ocean this year, utilities may have to call upon that network soon. And when they do, they will be armed with the revamped procedures.