PG&E’S EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS AND RESPONSE TO THE 2015 CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES.
A conversation between Tom Ryan, partner at Davies Consulting LLC, and Barry Anderson, vice president of emergency preparedness and operations at Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
In 2013, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) initiated the Emergency Management Advancement Program (EMAP) to enhance its capabilities for responding to a catastrophic incident, such as a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. EMAP established leadership, a governance structure, an incident command system, stakeholder outreach and operational capabilities. The goal was to prepare PG&E for an all-hazards response, using the earthquake scenario, to mobilize and plan for large-scale emergencies. As part of the effort, PG&E appointed Barry Anderson as vice president of emergency preparedness and operations. Anderson is an innovator who established a model from which other utilities can learn. Davies Consulting supported the EMAP effort, and Tom Ryan leads the firm’s emergency management line of business.
Since EMAP, PG&E has leveraged its enhanced capabilities in numerous storms and minor incidents, the 2014 Napa Valley earthquake, and last year’s series of devastating wildfires in Northern California. The wildfires threatened PG&E’s transmission and distribution electric operations, hydro and gas operations infrastructure, and the communities served.
Ryan interviewed Anderson to reveal what measures were involved in developing PG&E’s emergency preparation program.
Tom Ryan: What events shaped PG&E’s approach to emergency management and EMAP?
Barry Anderson: Emergencies such as San Bruno and Superstorm Sandy — and the overall frequency and intensity of weather-related events nationwide — led us to take a fresh look at our response processes, and our emergency planning and risk mitigation activities. Also, our customers have increasing expectations when it comes to safety, reliability and service. We realized that a risk assessment review, as well as an environmental assessment of our entire organization, would help inform our improvement roadmap.
We identified several areas that needed attention: our internal response coordination and communication (especially across commodities), PG&E partnerships with local officials and hazard awareness. That’s what we’re addressing through EMAP.
Ryan: What were the key indicators that prompted you to enhance emergency preparedness?
Anderson: First, we recognized the need to improve our ability to quickly establish a common focus and gather resources in emergencies, especially with respect to coordinating with our community partners. Another high priority — to meet customer expectations and to protect our own infrastructure — was enhancing our ability to adapt to evolving situations.
We focused on three key areas:
1. Our ability to scale quickly and adequately,
2. To request and receive large numbers of mutual assistance resources, and
3. To strengthen partnerships with external agencies.
These essentials shaped the evolution of our response organization and the implementation of several of the Incident Command System (ICS) principles.
We placed a high priority on:
• Processes to quickly establish base camps,
• Assembling materials and assets in the face of a significant incident,
• Collaborating seamlessly with first responders, and
• Communicating effectively with our crews and customers during an emergency.
Ryan: What were the benefits of focusing on a magnitude 7.0 earthquake as the example incident, even though you were taking an all-hazards approach?
Anderson: Our risk assessment pointed us toward a quake, and a 7.0 magnitude earthquake is a realistic, potentially high-consequence hazard for us in Northern California. The scenario gave us a state of devastation that involved more restoration than rebuilding, and it allowed us to test many new processes and to identify best practices. Also, we developed new mitigation steps as restoration operations unfolded.
We knew that our planning scenario had to be one that could expand organically so that we could realistically assess the flexibility of our roles, processes and procedures. A high-intensity earthquake scenario enabled us to experiment with things that could progress organically from the initial event.
Ryan: What’s the benefit of planning and preparing against a highly unpredictable, potentially catastrophic scenario?
Anderson: All utilities need to decide for themselves what works best for them, and we definitely wanted to be prepared for any size or type of hazard. The bottom line is that for PG&E, the scenario needed to be realistic and somewhere between a major and potentially devastating event.
PG&E is planning for emergency response to any type of event, with an earthquake being the highest-risk situation. That includes:
• Upgrading OECs (Operations Emergency Centers),
• Investing in standby materials,
• Revamping processes (particularly predictive tools), and
• Improving the configuration of response locations, communications and logistics.
These are functions that require many different parts of our organization to collaborate and share information.
Therefore, while we focused on an earthquake for our planning scenario, everything is grounded in what emergency managers call an “all-hazards” philosophy. All-hazards enables us to consider and prioritize all of our risks, to invest prudently in mitigation to avoid a risk event, and to respond consistently to an event, regardless of its size or type.
Ryan: Talk a little bit more about the significance of enhancing hazard awareness across the enterprise, and how wildfires rose to the top of your list of hazards. Is that more of a risk management element?
Anderson: Our recent preparations and responses have been great examples of our “One PG&E” thinking. We believe we owe it to ourselves — and, more importantly, to our customers — to be acutely aware of new risks as they arise, to understand the potential impacts and costs so that we can reduce risks, and to be prepared to respond. With our One PG&E approach, we:
• Assembled an emergency preparedness alignment team that includes directors from every line of business,
• Set up a weekly situational awareness call to help the team stay coordinated, and
• Worked more closely with external first responders through training and information sessions.
In 2015, Mother Nature truly pushed us. The severe drought and weather conditions put wildfires at the top of our list of hazards. Fires are a dire threat to our community and to our foundational power delivery infrastructure, and the 2015 fire season was the most challenging season ever.
With our all-hazards philosophy, we were able to flex to meet the wildfire challenge. What did change was the kind of expertise we needed to have on the team, the way our emergency preparedness team interfaced with our corporate-level leadership, and how we collaborated with community leaders.
Ryan: Can you describe how this played out during the wildfires?
Anderson: We were well-prepared and well-coordinated. Our state of readiness was excellent.
Valley Fire covered more than 76,000 acres. It was the third-worst fire in California history, and it prompted one of our largest-ever emergency restoration efforts. Over 1,700 employees were engaged in integrated response teams from across the entire enterprise. PG&E teams worked together and collaborated with several external agencies during response operations, and it was virtually seamless.
Within 36 hours, we had stood up the largest base camp ever undertaken by the company. We established a dual-commodity response and were able to restore service as soon as Cal Fire cleared areas for work. Our public safety specialists were embedded with Cal Fire, which enabled strong, mutual support.
Also, our fleet of Mobile Command Vehicles served as incident command posts during the response, and provided mapping for our internal and external teams. We employed MutuaLink, a FaceTime-style communication technology that provided instant and secure communications between agencies. It was a true, side-by-side effort to limit the spread of the fire, protect the safety of our communities, and speed the restoration of energy delivery.
We were even able to island some areas and use portable temporary generation to provide continuous electric service to customers outside the fire perimeter — people who otherwise would have experienced outages due to damaged infrastructure. Meanwhile, FEMA and Cal OES worked together to provide temporary housing for our customers.
We were pleased that the Edison Electric Institute acknowledged the success of our Valley Fire response with its 2015 Emergency Response Award.
Ryan: Looking forward, how has the ERM program reduced the risk and impacts of wildfire?
Anderson: Our Vegetation Management Program has expanded to fund about 100 local Fire Safe Council projects to create fire breaks in and around communities, improve emergency access roads, and help low-income residents clear defensible space from around their properties to protect them from fire.
We also collaborate on proactive measures such as early patrols and repairs in high-risk areas, proactive tree removal with LiDar, aerial patrols during peak fire season, and fire-spotting cameras. The goal is to reduce wildfires and limit the impacts when fires occur so that outages can be restored safely and quickly.
Ryan: How did you prioritize the implementation of EMAP?
Anderson: Our risk assessment identified more than 15 risks at the enterprise level, and from there, we identified and focused on the highest-priority risks. Our goal is to coordinate from all areas of the organization, with close coordination at the most local level.
The level of integration we’ve been able to achieve has led us to significantly improve preparedness, because we are working across commodities and business areas to create greater awareness and unified operations. I actually think this is one of the most exciting things about our evolution, because as the company’s level of experience and knowledge expands, we feel like we’re coming at any challenge from a position of greater strength.
So, whether it’s a blue sky, isolated outage impacting several blocks in downtown San Francisco, or a large-scale earthquake with major regional impacts, we’ve enhanced our ability to scale the response organization accordingly. We can communicate, run operations, and collaborate with internal and external partners much more effectively than we did 10 years ago, which is good for our customers, our restoration crews, and — really — for the long-term resiliency and durability of our energy delivery systems.
Ryan: I know there were several things you chose to do in addition to the initial EMAP implementation. Could you talk about those elements and the goals behind them?
Anderson: We’ve developed a Maturity Model to help us gauge our progress, and aligned our EMAP leaders to daily operational roles so there is a continuum between normal business and emergency response. This effort involves every department, including our Diablo Canyon Power Plant partners.
Also, strong ongoing collaboration and partnerships with external agencies such as CAL FIRE, local police and fire departments, the Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) are essential. Strengthening these relationships has enhanced our ability to get response up and running quickly.
Understanding the needs of our critical and essential customers allows us to plan more effectively. We are committed to helping the public make good decisions about their own safety and security during an outage, providing accurate information about power outages and restoration times, and enabling our employees to perform their jobs safely and effectively. It’s a complex web of processes that we are developing and fine tuning every day.
Another element has been maintaining better documentation as part of our Emergency Response Plan. Improvements in this area help us collect and use information after an event to identify strengths and address weaknesses in our processes. In the end, this enables better preparedness, more targeted training, and, ultimately, more effective response operations.
Ryan: When do public safety officials (such as CAL FIRE) become engaged?
Anderson: Always. I mean, even when we are not in response mode, our integrated response teams are debriefing, sharing after-action notes, discussing new ideas, and planning with outside partners.
We unreservedly benchmark with each other, knowing that this will help us maintain a state of readiness.
We’re continuously building these relationships and working together to be prepared. Cal OES takes a proactive approach with us, working to address all risks, threats and vulnerabilities. We unreservedly benchmark with each other, knowing that this will help us maintain a state of readiness.
Ryan: How does this help?
Anderson: Really, it’s this kind of non-emergency, ongoing information sharing and planning together that makes emergency response seamless during an event. For example, when there is an emergency event such as the wildfires, we embed our public safety specialists within the CAL FIRE incident command post, which helps streamline communications and decision-making. The rapport built during non-emergency interaction helps make our incident response work more efficient and effective.
Ryan: You mentioned at the start of this conversation that an exercise revealed the need for improvements in PG&E’s emergency management. What role do exercises play now in terms of continuing to improve emergency response operations?
Anderson: Yes, an exercise did lead us into the EMAP process, and we are committed to regular exercise as the best way to test preparedness, and to understand our strengths and weaknesses.
In May 2014, we had a “cold start” earthquake, full-functional exercise. Every aspect of PG&E’s emergency response was put to the test, including ICS (incident command system), mutual assistance, and our external partnerships. Just 90 days later, we experienced the Napa Valley earthquake in the middle of the night, which registered as magnitude 6.0, and was followed by 12 aftershocks. Within hours of that quake, our organization was stood up, and electric service was essentially restored to all customers within 26 hours.
Exercises keep us at the ready, while identifying gaps and best practices so that we can keep improving. We develop our exercises with the intent of stretching the organization and ensuring that we’re ready for a catastrophic event. They’re essential to the ongoing success of our program, because they help us maintain readiness across the board.
Barry Anderson has more than 30 years of experience within the electric utility industry. Currently, he is PG&E’s vice president of electric distribution operations. He is responsible for all maintenance, construction, design, and operation of the electric distribution system. Barry is also the lead for enterprise-wide emergency preparedness and response.
Tom Ryan has more than 20 years of experience in emergency management strategy and emergency response planning. He has delivered expert advice to utilities in the areas of strategic emergency management, operational tactics, program design and implementation, risk management, decision analysis, knowledge management, training and exercise delivery.