The Grid Optimization Blog

Terrorism, Utility Communications, and the ‘Fog of War’

cyber attack drill warningNews of the recent continental-scale war game to determine how prepared the U.S. is for a massive attack on the grid included a statement about “fog of war” confusion experienced by the participants.  This brought to mind an experience of mine.  A few years ago I had just finished a talk on the potential for miscommunication among utility system operators and line workers – due to (a) regional/corporate variations in meanings for the same terminology and (b) different terminology for the same procedures/mishaps, etc. – when a member of the audience approached me and said, “I owe you an apology.”  It seems a year earlier he had heard me talk on the same subject and left unconvinced there was any problem.  On the plane home, however, he met another utility guy he had seen at the conference and, as you might expect, they proceeded to talk shop.  “Well,” he said, “it didn’t take long before I realized I didn’t understand a damned thing he was saying.  So, I said to myself, if I see Harrison again, I’m going to offer him an apology.”

He did, and I accepted, but clearly, the danger of confusion from verbal misunderstanding should not be ignored.   In the airline industry, for instance, the FAA mandates that pilots and air traffic controllers use words from a 600-page lexicon, which means that all pilots and controllers all over the country – and the world – are on the same page, literally.  But they go even further to reduce the chance of misunderstanding, mandating that pilots and controllers use standard phraseology.  And the results speak for themselves.  Indeed, an airline with a 99.99% success rate would have several crashes a day!

This lesson was not ignored in Australia.  While admittedly much smaller than the U.S., that nation has mandated that all utilities use the same lexicon to avoid just this type of confusion and danger.

By contrast many utilities have no formal definition of terms used daily by lineman and operators.  Add to this the chance of error related to complex messaging, dysfluency, i.e., pauses, stammers, utterances that add no meaning to the message, and misarticulation, improperly spoken words and the inability to articulate correctly, and you start to see a potential for this to thicken the “fog of war” during a terrorist attack on the grid.

I’d like to know if readers of this blog have experienced communications issues related to differences in terminology, jargon, etc.  If this problem exists, it might be good to resolve it before the next war game … or indeed the next war.

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

on Nov 20, 2013

You bring up an excellent point. I hadn't thought about the the human communication piece. But I do know we haven't had enough uniformity across a number of areas in the utility industry. Particularly in tower design and other big electrical and mechanical infrastructure. Nation wide standards, perhaps run by NERC would make replacement/repair much faster in case of a terrorist attack or other calamity.

However, as it stands this effort would be on a state by state volunteer basis, and require countless hours of committee meetings. Small chance of it going anywhere in my lifetime.

on Nov 20, 2013

You are correct. As it stands now, the only North American-wide standards for terminology are those embedded in NERC standards ( although IEEE does publish a dictionary of terms). And as you point out, changing those ... or adding to them ... would be a major undertaking under existing procedures, involving lots of meetings. And let's not forget that much of the problem lies with local/regional variations in terminology, colloquialisms, etc., many of which are not written down. Still, I believe that if the industry sees this as a serious roadblock to either preventing or recovering from a major terrorist attack, then we can solve it. But then, I'm an incurable optimist!

on Nov 20, 2013

The biggest hurdle in understanding new developments in the utility industry has always been conquering the jargon and acronyms that accompany it. Everyone involved cannot resist getting cute and devising new terminology that will endear them to the ages and at the same time coloring the associated details to make things appear more complicated than they really are. As implied by the blog this kind of practice somewhere down the line could produce communications problems that could result in signficant negative consequences.

Relay Guru (not verified)
on Nov 22, 2013

I consult for various T&D and nuclear utilities on system protection, transformers, etc. There have been a number of times we stopped projects do to misunderstanding between Techs or Engineers over jargon and acronyms. Requires oversight with a wide dialect. sdg

on Nov 22, 2013

Relay Guru makes an interesting point about managing this modern-day Tower of Babel. Perhaps NERC or DHS should start cataloging these issues. That, at least would give managers a heads-up.

on Nov 23, 2013

Good article - matches my experience.

When I first started in the power industry I had an MSEE from a top university. But I found when I went to work at a utility that I didn't understand the jargon at all. Over the years I realized that power engineering was more like a guild - you learned by experience. The company didn't have a lexicon of terms, you just sort of learned as you went.

Then I worked as a consultant with other utilities and found that they often had other terms.

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