In the midst of crisis, utilities have kept the world running. But in this new paradigm, they need to plan for the next secondary event—now—with people at the core.

Energy has not been top of mind for consumers during the current pandemic and that’s because their power hasn’t gone down. Utilities have, instead, stepped up and kept hospitals running and laptops charged. But in this new operating environment, the risk of secondary events to resilience is amplified like never before—hurricane season is just around the corner, and Australian bushfire season not far behind, and there is growing suspicion that in locations such as California, wildfires may no longer be seasonal at all. In this hyper-challenging context, how do utilities prepare for and mitigate secondary events, and keep employees safe during the response? The answer: plan tactically and in detail like never before. And recognize that the safety of your workforce must be at the center of everything. Here are some practical steps on how to move forward.

Look at facilities first

When secondary events occur, you need an agile, responsive workforce that can flex as needed. Utilities are good at that and their muscle memory is strong. But with the backdrop of a pandemic, things get exponentially more complex. How can you make facilities workable from a people standpoint? The answer: plan now before a secondary event hits, and get your protocols in place to build new muscle memory. Naturally, utilities must adhere to foundational guidance from authorities on PPE and hygiene protocols; and of course sanitizing desks and work areas must be high on the list. But we’re thinking beyond those norms, about new ways of monitoring and mitigating risk. For example, I recommend creating a cross-functional task force (facilities, safety, operations, supply chain, human resource, legal, etc.) to identify safety risk hotspots, (e.g., where special PPE may be needed; gathering areas restricted; desk placement reconfigured). Task force members should meet with field crews and conduct regular walkthroughs of facilities for all relevant response/ops centers to proactively mitigate exposure to safety risks.

Expect to go it alone but plan for mutual assistance anyway

During secondary events, neighboring crews are routinely called in to help restore power. But as we look ahead, utilities will need to plan for reduced or possibly no mutual assistance. And, assuming some mutual assistance may still be possible, it’s crucial to start these conversations now with neighboring utilities to discuss protocols, work practices, and agreements.

Examples of things to think about: 1) Who provides the PPE? The requesting utility or both parties? 2) What happens if crews must be quarantined? Where does that happen and who pays to get them home or house them? 3) How do you train your people to respond under these protocols? Historically, training has been on the nuts and bolts of the system…or make that the poles, wires, and transformers of the utility needing help. But now training has an additional layer of safety on top. Could crews download initial safety onboarding material on their phones, on the journey to assist in the restoration effort? Flexible, multi-channel training options will be crucial at a time when people also need new levels of reassurance.

Keep humanity top-of-mind

Feelings are heightened across society and there are many stats to prove it. Example: The UK Office of National Statistics reports 47 percent of people suffering “high levels” of anxiety across the UK population. And many people do not want to return to work at all. Utilities should 1) optimize the role of technology to maintain remote working where feasible and practical, and 2) plan careful and authentic communications with employees. We know that, under stress, employees (and humans in general) want a personal connection. I’ve seen senior leadership at utilities clients over recent days connecting with employees at a personal level about their plans, how they’re bringing back their people, and how they’ll protect them. Backed by strong training, executives need to put together these communications now in anticipation of a secondary event, when utilities will need the workforce present in the field and in response and operations centers.

Also, prioritize clarity on roles and responsibilities in the response organization. This may include new or augmented roles—for example, consider adding new positions into the Incident Command System (ICS) emergency response structure, like the COVID Safety Compliance Officer who reports to the Safety Officer. ICS is scalable and flexible, and in this environment you need to consider additional and unique roles and responsibilities beyond those identified in your existing response framework.

I’m also recommending to my utilities clients that different strategies and approaches may be needed for restoration, depending on infection rates in a particular location or population densities (urban versus rural). Develop those strategies now, so you can analyze the secondary event when it hits, and implement the right approach immediately. A tiered strategy may work best, going from, for example: Level 1—urban/high infection: face masks, possible hazmat suit, use of physical barriers around worksite; Level 2—suburban/lower infection levels: face masks, social distancing, identified individuals to prevent public coming too close to work site; Level 3—rural and/or low infection rate: social distancing only for crews/workforce.

Utilities executives can cut through the complexity with the right approaches and continue to lead effectively as they have done over recent months. It’s certainly a learning curve. And it’s not going away any time soon.

To stay ahead of the next secondary event, utilities must get practical and tactical about their planning—now. Contact me to find out more about how.

LeeAnn Tiffault

Manager – Accenture Utilities

Subscription Center
Subscribe to Accenture's Utilities Blog Subscribe to Accenture's Utilities Blog