When Disasters Strike, Utilities Have a Plan

Disaster planning for utilities keeps businesses on track and able to respond quickly


When natural disasters or other catastrophes strike, the first priority is caring for human victims. But the next most important task is restoring vital utility services. Indeed, rescue efforts and medical care are hampered by lack of communications, power and availabilityof drinking water and sanitation.

The multiple problems faced by residents of the Gulf Coast and NewOrleans after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the flooding that followed, emphasize the importance of disaster planning, but amid the chaos, the amazingly quick restoration of vital utilities stands out asone of the few bright spots in the recovery efforts.

That's because the nation's primary utility providers have comprehensive plans in place to react to hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, terrorist attacks and about any other type of disaster.

"Our goal is to have a contingency plan for every possible type ofcatastrophic event, no matter what its size and scope," said KennethJ. Smith, executive director of AT&T global network operations and network disaster recovery. "And we come away from every event with lessons that will help us do better the next time. No plan is ever perfect, we always strive to improve."

How plans are implemented depends on circumstances.

"Especially after Katrina, the public is aware of how destructive hurricanes can be," said Smith. "Actually, hurricanes are easier to prepare for because we know they are coming, where they are likely to hit, and because they usually pass an area quickly, so emergency response can begin quickly. We already have supplies of restoration cableat standby locations all across the United States where we can access them immediately.

"Contractors and vendors have more time to respond and move personnel and supplies to locations designated by AT&T. We have establishedprocedures we follow as the storm approaches. AT&T technicians travel cable routes before a storm makes landfall to ensure there are no areas of vulnerability. If we have construction under way, we can either hurry to complete it or stop work and get crews out of the way."

Preparing for the unexpected

More difficult are disasters that strike with little or no warningsuch as earthquakes and tornadoes. Earlier this year, out-of-controlfires raged through Georgia, Florida and California, bringing a different set of challenges.

Utility disaster recovery planners do everything possible to anticipate every eventuality they may face.

"Our routes are secure, our buildings sound," Smith continued. "Wehave a Global Network Operations Center that monitors news and weather around the world 24 hours a day every day of the year.

"Most of our telecommunications equipment is DC-based with batteryback-up fed by commercial power or generator. We can go a long time without commercial power--I can't remember the last time an office went down due to lack of power. We have a fleet of backup generators available for deployment at a moment's notice. Our plan calls for obtaining fuel from our regular sources, but if they can't deliver, we have standby suppliers we can access."

Contractors and suppliers play a key role in disaster recovery plans.

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