Storm Activation Without the Aggravation

storm activation

It boggles the mind how subjective many utilities’ storm activation decisions can be.  I simply do not agree with companies that leave these decisions open to widespread interpretation or allow them to be clouded by individual judgment.  A far better decision-making approach is to remove as much subjectivity as possible.  Kind of like how Wall Street works.  You see, Wall Street trading firms have perfected computer models that can analyze hundreds, if not thousands of market variables to make complex trading decisions. And these programs not only make the decisions, they also virtually pull the trigger, many times in a trading day, affecting the lives and fortunes of millions, not to mention the economies of entire nations.  As a result of such lightning fast analysis and decision making, the trading firms can earn millions (of course, the opposite can also happen, but the winners far outnumber the losers…otherwise these firms would go belly-up pretty quickly).

So with such powerful programming and modeling resources available, why is it so difficult to activate emergency restoration plans?  After all, ERP activation and stock trades are both binary, “go/no-go” decisions.  Both consider multiple, interrelated variables – in ERP’s case, weather prediction models, pre-defined threat levels, resources, time and logistical projections, just to name a few.

Maybe these decisions are so tough to make because of all those people looking over your shoulder, like your CFO or your regulators, watching to make sure your decision is prudent, not wasteful.  Maybe the decisions are difficult because unlike investment banks, no utility is “too big to fail.”  Or maybe it’s because there’s nowhere to hide in our social media-obsessed community.  Face it, hell hath no fury like a customer sweltering in a summer heat storm or freezing in the dark.

General Patton would probably endorse a “shoot-ready-aim” approach to such go/no-go decisions.  Eisenhower most certainly employed a “ready-ready-ready-aim shoot” methodology.  So which is better?  The gunslinger mentality?  Or a slow, methodical approach to pulling the proverbial trigger?  Both tendencies can lead to judgment calls because they can involve a lot of subjectivity.

A sound go/no-go decision-making approach removes as much subjectivity as possible, leveraging pre-defined criteria to trigger a specific course of action.  It’s true in the business world, and even more so when it comes to activating your restoration plan (hopefully more useful than a dirty diaper).

Storm Activation Criteria

Most utilities use some type of pre-defined criteria to categorize approaching storms.  They might also have a damage prediction model to project the predicted scope of damage, number of outages, number of personnel needed, and where personnel should be deployed.  The output is a classification of the storm or forecasted event into a specific tier or level – the higher the level, the larger the restoration effort.

Each event level recommends the activation details for functional teams and describes the actions that should be taken based on specific conditions.  This allows utilities to know when activation is warranted, and how to deploy resources to ramp up and execute an efficient restoration effort.

Although utility storm activation decisions should be driven by models or pre-defined criteria, it’s not always a clear cut proposition.  There has to be a balance between strict adherence to analytics and relying solely on judgment.  For example, an approaching storm that just barely exceeds pre-defined activation levels could trigger a discussion among experienced team members to decide if activation is really warranted, regardless of what the criteria dictates.

The bottom line is that these decisions must be made as accurately as possible to either avoid unnecessary costs or to make sure you have the resources you need to get the job done.  Take mutual assistance resources as an example.  If the ERP is activated too soon and the storm ends up not materializing, the Incident Commander might prematurely request mutual aid resources that are ultimately not needed.  On the flip side, if the storm is worse than expected, it may be too late in the game to secure the mutual aid resources you need to minimize the duration of the outages for your customers.  As you can see, activation decisions, much like Goldilocks’ favorite porridge, must be just right.

Activation Mobilization

Once the ERP is activated, the details associated with the event level classification determines the next steps, including notifying functional teams, deploying resources (workers, equipment, trucks, etc.), prepping the staging area, conducting damage assessment, generating ETRs, determining the need for mutual assistance, determining emergency call center tactics, proactively communicating with customers and other external stakeholders, and updating information systems.

The ERP remains activated until the event has been successfully handled or if the event doesn’t materialize.  At that point, restoration resources are demobilized in an orderly, safe and efficient return of resources to their original status.  Normal operations are then phased back in according to pre-defined resumption criteria.

The Pitfalls

Here are a few of the common pitfalls that can mess things up:

  • Forgetting to include team members with institutional knowledge as part of the storm activation process development.
  • Having too much activation procedural documentation, making it difficult to find answers and react quickly during fast-paced restoration events.
  • Having inadequate or incomplete activation procedural documentation, leading to guesswork and poor decision-making.
  • Penalizing someone for making financial commitments for a storm that doesn’t happen while following the activation criteria – the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” syndrome.
  • Not updating plans, activation criteria and models based on lessons learned from previous post-incident debrief sessions.

The Bottom Line

To activate or not to activate, that is the question.  Or is it?  There’s no need for utility personnel to ponder such a question or decision. A far better approach is to remove as much subjectivity as possible from the decision-making process by using pre-defined criteria and/or a predictive model to trigger ERP activation. Approaching it any other way would be, well, a poor decision!

For more on the basics of storm activation, check out this detailed PDF from EEI on storm response and restoration process best practices.

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