In their homes, most people keep a supply of candles and flashlights available in case a storm leaves them in the dark. Some even keep canned goods and fresh water in a safe place. No one likes to be without power.

It is one thing to be prepared for the lights to go out at home, but it is another when hurricanes, ice storms, tornadoes and other natural disasters cause large-scale disruptions of electrical service. Not having power often leads to certain chaos, especially in heavily populated areas. For hospitals, nursing homes and first responders, their reliance on electricity is a matter of life and death.

Electric utilities have a responsibility to put in place emergency plans and protocols to restore power expediently for their customers while ensuring the safety of employees. The devastation and long-term power outages caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita — and a series of other hurricanes — ice storms and the recent outbreak of tornadoes have underlined the importance of an effective emergency management program. Most utilities have developed their own emergency plans to handle specific types of storms prevalent in their regions.

Planning, Training and Forecasting

Entergy, which delivers electricity to 2.7 million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, has proactive vegetation management plans in place, conducts regular emergency practice drills, operates pre-established command centers and dedicates a week each year to hurricane preparedness. The storm logistics team meets throughout the year to discuss all aspects of storm preparation, right down to details like contracting caterers who will be responsible for supplying crews with food and water during cleanup.

Ongoing training is a priority for the utility. All Entergy storm team chiefs are required to complete National Incident Management System courses in the 100, 200 and 700 series; team members are required to complete the 100 and 200 series courses. This training enables Entergy personnel to understand and be able to communicate with other disaster-response managers from local emergency management agencies.

Entergy receives weather information from several sources, including special around-the-clock weather statements that forecast conditions. The utility often knows a threat exists days before a storm actually hits. If predictions warrant, an early action is to alert teams to get their families to safety before they are deployed to strategically placed camps to wait out the storm. By prepositioning storm teams, the utility is able to respond quickly once the storm has passed.

Entergy's preparation efforts are not limited to hurricanes, thunderstorms and tornadoes. Ice storms can be a major threat across the southern region, especially considering they are more difficult to forecast because one degree can make all the difference between run-of-the-mill cold rain and freezing rain. Ice storms can cause widespread devastation, adding significant weight to power lines and vegetation alike. One way Entergy prepares for the threat of ice is by carefully monitoring vegetation growth, trimming it, burying some lines and creating breakaway points to protect power poles to allow for quicker power restoration.

Whether it is snow, wind or ice, proactive vegetation management is a key element to any emergency preparation plan. By meeting and exceeding federal guidelines, and setting some of its own guidelines based on local weather patterns, Entergy can help decrease the number of downed power lines caused by fallen trees and branches, helping to improve response time to restore electricity to customers.

Vegetation Management

In the wake of Katrina and Rita, more than 4,000 tree trimmers from across the country joined in the cleanup efforts, working nearly 50 days straight to help restore power to the affected regions. Utility foresters also were contracted from various regions to assist with restoration, including 40 foresters from independent consulting firm ACRT, which specializes in storm cleanup. Ongoing vegetation cleanup continued long after by local crews. As a result, much of Entergy's proactive planning efforts stemmed from best practices established during that time. Even just three years later, in 2008, the utility was better prepared when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit the coastal regions of Louisiana and Texas, helping to streamline the power-restoration process.

Today, Entergy's vegetation management program is one of the most aggressive in the country. For starters, the utility works with its contractors to maintain a diverse collection of equipment and vehicles that make virtually every tree, distribution line and transmission line viewable and reachable, even through vast woodlands and swamplands. The equipment includes, but is not limited to, giraffes, buckets, air boats and helicopters. Each Entergy team member specializes in particular equipment to ensure safety and appropriate use.

Monitoring

To monitor vegetation growth across the region, line crews and vegetation crews use helicopter flight patrols to review every mile of line every six months (spring and fall). Additionally, the vegetation team makes a third flight during the summer looking for more risks. This is of particular importance, as 3 ft to 4 ft (0.9 m to 1.2 m) of growth can happen in just two months. Flight patrols are augmented by ground patrols, especially in urban areas.

Both ground and flight crews keep diligent records, rating vegetation based on a severity scale:

  • P1 - Cleanup required within 24 hours (reserved for trees that are within minimum arcing distance of the line)

  • P2 - Cleanup required within six days (classified based on line voltage and flash distance)

  • P3 High - Cleanup required within 30 days (classified based on line voltage and flash distance)

  • P3 Medium - Cleanup required within six months

  • P3 Low - Cleanup to be done as part of regular maintenance schedule.

Checks and Balances

Entergy has a system of checks and balances in place. When a questionable risk tree is identified on a transmission line from the air, the utility puts feet on the ground to take a closer look and take any necessary action. For regular maintenance, Entergy deploys crews to cover every inch of line in approximately three-year cycles, which is below industry average. Floor management is done every two years.

The bottom line is that emergency management is a collaborative effort among all team members. Training, logistics, safety initiatives and proactive measures, such as vegetation management, are all vital to ensuring utilities are as prepared as they can be when Mother Nature strikes. Utilities never know when or where the next natural disaster will occur, so well-defined planning is essential to making sure power can be restored as quickly as possible.

Greg Grillo (ggrillo@entergy.com) is the storm incident commander for Entergy, based out of Jackson, Mississippi, U.S. His primary focus is to manage transmission projects. During his 27 years with Entergy, Grillo has held positions in engineering, distribution planning, system meter reading, revenue protection and load research. He has worked for both electric and gas operations and for three of the five utilities. He also worked for Entergy's London Electricity company for two years. Grillo holds a bachelor and master of science degree in engineering from the University of New Orleans and an MBA degree from Loyola University.

Matt Falcon (mfalc90@entergy.com) is a utility forester for ACRT Inc. He has more than 12 years of experience and is currently under contract with Entergy to monitor its transmission lines. He is a lifelong Louisiana resident and a graduate of Louisiana Tech University.

Emergency Management Resources

National Incident Management System

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) offers a systematic, proactive approach to guide departments and agencies at all levels of government, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector to work seamlessly to prevent, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate the effects of incidents — regardless of cause, size, location or complexity — to reduce the loss of life and property, and harm to the environment.

NIMS works hand in hand with the National Response Framework guiding principles. NIMS provides the template for the management of incidents, while the National Response Framework provides the structure and mechanisms for national-level policy for incident management.

Emergency Management Institute

Through its courses and programs, Emergency Management Institute (EMI) serves as the national focal point for the development and delivery of emergency management training to enhance the capabilities of federal, state, local and tribal government officials, volunteer organizations, and the public and private sectors to minimize the impact of disasters on the American public. EMI curricula are structured to meet the needs of this diverse audience with an emphasis on how the various elements work together in emergencies to save lives and protect property.

Instruction focuses on the four phases of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. EMI develops courses and administers resident and nonresident training programs in areas such as natural hazards (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, dam safety), technological hazards (hazardous materials, terrorism, radiological incidents, chemical stockpile emergency preparedness), professional development, leadership, instructional methodology, exercise design and evaluation, information technology, public information, integrated emergency management and train the trainers.

EMI has developed a training program to encourage community hurricane preparedness. This computer-based course provides basic information about dealing with tropical cyclones and hurricanes.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Work conditions change drastically after hurricanes and other natural disasters. In the wake of a hurricane, response and recovery workers face additional challenges, such as downed power lines, downed trees and high volumes of construction debris while performing an otherwise familiar task or operation.

In its Hazard Exposure and Risk Assessment Matrix, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides information on many of the most common and significant additional hazards that response and recovery workers might encounter when working in an area recently devastated by a hurricane. This matrix highlights several tasks and operations associated with disaster response and recovery. The matrix is designed to help employers make decisions during their risk assessment that will protect employees who are working in hurricane-impacted areas.

Companies mentioned:

ACRT www.acrtinc.com

Emergency Management Institute training.fema.gov

Entergy www.entergy.com

National Incident Management System www.fema.gov

National Response Framework www.fema.gov

Operational Safety & Health Administration www.osha.gov