When it comes to implementing an effective Incident Command System (ICS), utilities are coming aboard.

Having a simple response plan to outages is no longer enough. What’s needed is a uniform structure for responding to a variety of emergencies that not only could impact public safety and energy deliveries, but which can work easily with mutual assistance (outside utilities) and emergency response entities.

In addition to outages, there are many scenarios that need to be considered. These include natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, floods, storms, and, in the Pacific Northwest, volcanoes. There are also human-created emergencies such as sabotage, terrorism, riots, armed intruders or accidents that threaten our distribution systems.

This past September, Portland General Electric (PGE) dealt with a non-weather related emergency when Oregon’s Estacada 36 Pit Fire threatened generation facilities and transmission lines. The fire, which burned 5,520 acres, involved as many as 1,048 firefighters. PGE’s ICS allowed our Incident Management Team (IMT) to work in concert with the Type 2 IMT of the fire service.

We were all on the same page: ICS to ICS. Before ICS, we wouldn’t have known that an IMT was coming in to manage the fire. Also, we wouldn’t have known right away where the fire service Type 2 IMT would be stationed at the Incident Command Post (ICP) in the field. Because PGE was ICS trained, the response came together seamlessly, allowing a more effective and efficient response from our field personnel.

What makes ICS so important is that it provides a uniform protocol and language that enables utilities to work with one another to meet public safety and service challenges. Even better, it provides a means of working seamlessly with fire, police and other agencies to provide a coordinated response. ICS, at its simplest form, is “Management by Objectives,” which is something most utilities already understand and use daily.

…funding the appropriate amount of ICS can be similar to buying insurance: You can carry liability if you want to, but if something bad happens, you’re going to wish you had full, comprehensive coverage.

What is new through ICS training is the analysis of Incident Complexity and Incident Duration, which must be considered in order to effect appropriate resource management. How we manage the finite set of resources in an incident that is escalating, or may escalate, is of critical importance if we are going to be successful in an emergency response.

Communications and logistics also must be firmly in place to support the incident response. Communications takes two forms: The first is the devices, groups and methods used to manage the incident – radios, cell phones, email, etc. The second form of communications comes through the IMT via the Public Information Officer (PIO), who is responsible for internal and external communications.

An ICS structure is the best support mechanism an incident commander can use to balance managing personnel and incident response. It provides for uniform titles, tactical protocols and a command hierarchy. It also helps in setting and adequately communicating the objectives, strategies and tactics for each operational period.

There are four critical elements of ICS: adoption, planning, training, and exercising the system to be sure that it will be ready to launch when needed.

Utility Acceptance of ICS

According to an online survey of 85 utilities in August 2013, ICS usage is mixed. Those surveyed included investor-owned as well as municipal utilities in every region of the U.S. The survey found:

  • 95 percent see ICS as “important” or “very important” for effective emergency response,
  • About 50 percent use ICS every time an incident occurs,
  • Less than 30 percent use ICS “sometimes” when incidents occur, and
  • 20 percent are not using it but feel they should.

Almost half (47 percent) of the utilities surveyed use the National Incident Management System (NIMS) guidelines, which is the national standard for effective and efficient incident management. But these same respondents customize the guidelines for their own company’s use. Another 14 percent use some of the guidelines, 25 percent use their own system and 14 percent use none of the guidelines.

The consequence of not having uniform ICS capability among utilities is that when emergencies occur, there’s a greater risk of not having a cohesive, integrated and effective response.

When PGE’s personnel deploy and return, the linemen and general foremen often share that the other company’s emergency response system is a lot like our own. Site visits between companies also are strengthening the dialogue on the use and adoption of ICS.

Adapting ICS to Utilities

Currently, it appears that utilities in the West are adopting ICS more readily than elsewhere in the country. We have traveled to Connecticut, New York and Boston to gain insights into their best practices after Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. We are so grateful for their partnership and the leading practices they have shared with us, such as Joint Utility Liaison, Staging Areas, and other initiatives. In exchange, we have been able to share our ICS work, toolkit and training. Adapting Lessons Learned (rather than Lessons Observed) is what makes the difference. Those that have gained this experience can assist others and pass on the knowledge.

Part of the challenge of broad ICS adoption is conveying the value of ICS, and making training more affordable and relevant. The materials currently available at the national/federal level are not tailored to utilities. Most of the federal classes are fire oriented.

There’s also a class geared for the health industry and one for public works. Currently, there is no curriculum specifically geared to utilities. WEI and the utilities in the West are working to change that so that ICS will become more attractive and common throughout the industry. And when it is taught, it should be meaningful and provide value for front line workers in transmission, distribution, generation and related areas.

Across the West, we have a cadre of instructors. Utilities across the board are making investments individually to implement ICS, so we are joining together. Why not pool resources and create training and resources for our whole industry?


Credit: PGE

It is critical to adopt a standard curriculum and ensure that the delivery of training meets all utilities’ needs, including electric companies, gas companies, water companies, telecommunication companies and others.

Considering curriculum, qualified instructors and funding, there are a lot of components that require an investment. What about ICS certification? That’s another investment decision. The point is that utilities need to consider all factors of adopting and implementing ICS. It really is like selecting insurance coverage — there are lots of options and one size does not fit all.

Growing up in a military family, I learned early that to be mission ready meant standardized training and lots of practice. As an athlete, this life lesson also held true. ICS provides a way to create muscle memory among utility workers so that when they have to act, they know exactly how to respond. Utility field personnel face many dangerous and tough conditions similar to the military and other first responders working in the worst weather and in confined or aerial spaces.

ICS serves in all areas of the utility too. Whether the emergency is in transmission and distribution, generation, information technology or anywhere else, when adopted and implemented correctly, an ICS-trained staff knows how to integrate and respond no matter what the company faces.

Overcoming Resistance

At the field level, many organizations, including utilities and fire departments, have long-standing traditions on how they respond to emergencies. The utility group who plan WEI’s ICS forum is attempting to demonstrate the added value ICS brings to their company traditions. We seek to show how this structure can strengthen how they respond to incidents and ensure that they don’t run out of needed resources.

One challenge faced by some utilities is allocating appropriate support (strategic, financial, etc.), because ICS is relatively new in some utilities. One of the values of developing and designing ICS within a company is that it reveals gaps in day-to-day operations that might otherwise go unnoticed. There is a multitude of competing priorities in any company, and finding the right balance is an organizational decision. But there are demonstrable improvements to be had by adopting and implementing ICS.

Funding the appropriate amount of ICS can be similar to buying insurance: You can carry liability if you want to, but if something bad happens, you’re going to wish you had full, comprehensive coverage. When an emergency strikes, the investment in ICS will pay off. It’s not a question of if, but of when.