When Disasters Strike, Utilities Have a Plan

Sept. 6, 2007
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.

"We have arrangements with key contractors and venders to be on call 24/7, 365 days a year, and they are prepared to respond at any time, anywhere our fiber is located," Smith explains. "Our contractors can give us the capability of quickly bringing personnel, tools and equipment, and other assets to restore our network and protect it from damage caused by other restoration activities. One of the serious risks to underground infrastructure in such situations is damage as new utility poles are set. In the rush to restore services, one-call procedures cannot always be followed, and crews are digging everywhere."

In addition to that risk, underground cable is not always safe from damage. Following Katrina and in other flooded areas, washed out right-of-way along railroads and highways uncovered cable and exposed it to damage. Train derailments also can cut long-haul cables.

"In such situations, cable from several carriers may be affected,"Smith said. "Customers who believe they have diversity by buying from more than one carrier, may discover several networks have interruptions at the same time."

Underground more secure

Even so, Smith said buried plant is much less vulnerable to wind and ice, and there is a trend in the telecommunications industry to convert aerial plant to underground.

As the largest recent disaster, did Katrina change the company's thinking about disaster planning?

"From a network perspective, I don't know that it has caused us toprepare any differently," Smith answered. "But we had always assumedwhen personnel were sent to locations of disasters, there would be hotels where they could stay, and here we found there simply was no place for employees to be safely housed. We brought in campers, built tent cities with mobile showers and kitchens. Now we know we can't always count on hotels being available."

9/11 provided a different lesson

"We do not count on local personnel to be a major part of disasterrecovery work, because they have their families and homes to take care of," said Smith. "And we've always been able to move people in very quickly by air. But we now know there are situations when air travel may not be available, so that's become another consideration in ourplanning."

Security is an increasingly important issue in disaster locations,and access of personnel can be slowed by steps taken to keep people out of affected areas.

"As more personnel are credentialed as first responders by state and federal agencies, the speed with which workers can start restoringutility services will increase," he said.

A Contractor's Perspective

Telecommunications Southern Diversified Technologies (SDT) has been called on to help restore communications services following numerous disasters over the last several years.

SDT crews were among the first on the scene following Katrina and were honored last summer by AT&T for outstanding service during that 2005 disaster.

"Our company is a widely-recognized provider of telecommunication infrastructure services with very diversified service offerings whichallow us to react to disaster situations quite well," says James Ezell, SDT president. "And we are fortunate to serve clients who recognize that engaging us early on can save valuable time and enable us to better respond proactively with the right resources and equipment, instead of trying to scramble after the fact and send whatever is available when a crisis occurs."

SDT has an emergency response record providing personnel and equipment almost immediately after damage has occurred, helping minimize communication network outages.

"During the 2005 season, there was a period when we were covering three storms simultaneously, and that gave us new experience and insight in meeting network infrastructure disaster recovery needs," says Ezell. "We understand how things like multiple access routes to facilities, standardized water couplings, and access to remote buildings turn into big problems if a proactive plan is not utilized. SDT's diversified service offerings make us unique in that we have the capability to respond to a wide variety of network needs from underground facilities outages to splicing, equipment and building support, as well as technical and non-technical personnel support, and we have a reputation for being able to invent a solution when none seems available."

SDT is a leading supplier of specialty telecommunications infrastructure services to service providers throughout the United States with operations in 35 states. Corporate headquarters is in Brookhaven, MS, with operational offices in Loganville, GA.

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