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Emergency Operations Center: The Power Company

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  • Emergency Operations Center: The Power Company

    Below is an interesting article on Connecticut's major Electric Utilitie's incident command during the black out. Somehow, I bet a lot of us can relate to the reaction of their emergency managers!

    I really liked:
    On Friday afternoon, he was finishing his 31st consecutive hour on the job, dispatching electrical crews around Connecticut, coordinating with neighboring states, making sure hospitals and police stations had power.

    LaChance's sleeves were rolled up. His eyes were wide and alert. His words were focused. And he wasn't watching the clock.

    He won't say it in so many words, but he loves this stuff.

    I think that may be a trait -- I know my non-fire friends & co-workers have all observed, the bigger & worse sh*t is hitting the fan, the calmer and more "in the grove" I become.

    Here's the article:

    Unplugged: Blackout Turns Up The Heat
    When The Lights Went Out Thursday, Emergency Planners Powered Up

    August 17, 2003
    By MATTHEW KAUFFMAN, Courant Staff Writer

    Jim LaChance put in a full day's work Thursday, running Connecticut Light & Power repair crews through a simulated storm drill in Norwalk. It hardly mattered that there wasn't a cloud in the sky; with New England's punishing winter weather - and 18,165 miles of power lines for LaChance to worry about - preparing for the worst is a full-time job.

    LaChance, director of emergency operations for CL&P, wrapped up the drill by mid-afternoon, and at 4:18 p.m., with a sweltering sun still high in the sky, he was pulling into his driveway in Guilford.

    That's when the phone rang.

    New York City was dark, a colleague told him. There were problems in Canada, problems in the Midwest. And the lights were going out all over southwestern Connecticut.

    "What?" he yelled into the phone. "It's a nice day. What do you mean everything's going out?"

    LaChance pulled back out of his driveway and raced to Berlin, where he readied for a marathon, sleepless night at CL&P's Emergency Operations Center, which he had helped design. On Friday afternoon, he was finishing his 31st consecutive hour on the job, dispatching electrical crews around Connecticut, coordinating with neighboring states, making sure hospitals and police stations had power.

    LaChance's sleeves were rolled up. His eyes were wide and alert. His words were focused. And he wasn't watching the clock.

    He won't say it in so many words, but he loves this stuff.

    "We like what we do," LaChance said. "Sick as it may be, we're too dumb to go home."

    The Emergency Operations Center is one flight down a lime-green stairwell in CL&P's headquarters on the sprawling Berlin Turnpike complex of its parent company, Northeast Utilities.

    The basement room is modest in size, ringed by spartan desks. But it sports killer technology. On Thursday, ceiling-mounted projectors beamed huge computer images that instantly tracked outages by region, by town, by individual substations.

    All that data gave CL&P a solid grasp of the impact of the power loss, but it couldn't answer one question: What happened?

    Nevertheless, it took no time at all to recognize this was a power outage unlike anything the company had seen in decades.

    • • •

    Talk to an official with an electric company and you'll be talking to an amateur meteorologist. That constant sense of the weather had CL&P officials perplexed when the power went out on a calm, sunny day.

    Leo Olivier, president and chief operating officer of CL&P, got his first hint of trouble the same way thousands of his customers did: The lights flickered.

    Olivier was in the NU complex but away from his office, so he picked up a phone and called his administrative assistant, who had been trying to reach him with word of a massive blackout.

    Olivier then called Jim Gavell, system director of division operations, a 30-plus-year veteran of the energy business. "The first thing I asked was: Is there any indication that this is weather-related? And the answer was no."

    Olivier thought to himself: "Boy, this is really, really strange."

    And then he thought the unthinkable: "The first thing that came to my mind was a terrorist event," he said.

    That was enough to have him rushing for the EOC.

    Much of the staff was already there. A circle of desks in the center became home to workers with NASA-style titles. There was a logistics officer, a crew tracker, an incident commander. Against the walls, others worked at desks devoted to key functions: "Wires Down," "Outside Utility Crews," "Vegetation Management," "Food and Lodging."

    Don't underestimate that last one. For major storms, CL&P books hundreds of rooms for employees. And everyone has to eat. So Thursday night and Friday morning was a smorgasbord of pizza, pasta, chicken, grinders and cannolis.

    When a storm knocks out power lines, CL&P scrambles workers around the state to get the wires back up. This time, there was no damage to CL&P's equipment. Instead, "they unplugged us, basically," said Dan Hagan, system operations manager for CL&P.

    "They" are the operators of New England's regionwide power grid, who maintain safety mechanisms that automatically shut down parts of the system in response to electrical surges like those caused by Thursday's power disturbance.

    So bringing the power back wasn't a question of repairing equipment. Instead, CL&P needed to hear from the grid that it was ready to get the power flowing again to certain areas or certain substations.

    During a storm, there is rarely an idle minute in the EOC. But through the long night Thursday and Friday, eager workers occasionally bemoaned the wait for power to be released.

    It wasn't entirely a waiting game, though. The power surges essentially tripped giant circuit breakers in about 70 CL&P substations, every one of which had to be reset manually before power could be sent through them.

    In addition, when power is lost from, say, a downed wire, devices attached to nearby utility poles automatically reconfigure themselves in an attempt to reroute power around the downed line. With Thursday's massive power loss, CL&P had to check or reset about 1,000 of those devices, called reclosers, before power could be turned on.

    Some day, that will all be done remotely with computers and radio-frequency transmitters. But on Thursday and Friday, it meant sending crews to every one.

    "It's not just throwing a switch and everyone comes back on," Hagan said.

    At the simplest level, the main functions of the EOC are to figure out where resources are needed and how to get them there. One of the first tasks was rounding up as many of CL&P's 152 distribution-side electricians as could be found.

    Hagan, who oversees CL&P's three operations centers in Waterbury, Hartford and Tolland, was driving home down Route 9 Thursday when his pager began delivering a stream of messages.

    Hagan pulled a U-turn, tuned his car radio to a news station and contacted all three centers as he drove to Berlin. It was evident that the Waterbury region had been hit far worse than the central or eastern regions of the state, so in the EOC, Hagan directed crews to head west. Meanwhile, a call to power officials in New Hampshire lined up reserve workers from that state in case Connecticut ran thin.

    Olivier, the president, arrived at the EOC but was determined to let LaChance run the show.

    "My role, in one respect, is to not get in the way," Olivier said.

    But he did help coordinate information with political and regulatory bodies, including the governor's office and the Department of Public Utility Control. When cameras are pointed at the governor, it's important that he have accurate information, and that task fell to Raymond Necci, vice president of utility group services, to drive up to Hartford and share a microphone with the governor during a press conference.

    For 10 years, Necci had studied to be the public face of NU in the event of a major problem with a nuclear power plant. He had never had to stand before the cameras, though - until Thursday. Olivier, who rose up through the nuclear side, got a chuckle that his colleague finally had a chance to put his training to use.

    • • •

    Later this week, Olivier will gather workers together for a daylong "lessons learned critique" to evaluate how the company responded and where it can make improvements.

    But as the crisis in Connecticut wound down Friday, Hagan wasn't looking that far ahead. He had seen the forecasts for Saturday that predicted thunderstorms and 40-mph wind gusts. Hagan knew that the soil was drenched, and that trees were filled with leaves that act like a hundred tiny sails tugging at limbs when the wind whips up.

    Some of those limbs are perched right above CL&P's power lines.

    "I'm figuring worst-case scenario," Hagan said. "We better be prepared."
    IACOJ Canine Officer

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