June 08, 2017
Enhancing emergency preparedness for utilities
By: Brooke Davies

Over the past 10 years, utilities across North America have invested significant resources to mature their emergency practices. In a trend that sees utilities moving from storm-centric planning to comprehensive all-hazards emergency management, these companies are integrating planning, training, exercising, communications, and response across the enterprise, verifying that responses to any incident—whether it be a storm, cyberattack, hostile intruder or earthquake—are more effective, efficient and safer for customers, employees, contractors and the public. 

A recent benchmark effort by Accenture’s newly acquired Davies Consulting team evaluated 17 utilities across North America to assess emergency management maturity in the industry. Each benchmark participant reported their current practices in 10 critical categories:

  1. Governance
  2. Workforce management
  3. Hazard-based planning
  4. Response organization
  5. Emergency planning
  6. Command and information systems
  7. Training and education, exercise
  8. Communications
  9. Stakeholder outreach

In the analysis, we uncovered four key indicators of leading emergency management practices—Including preparedness, response, and recovery.

  1. Establish a dedicated emergency management organization with adequate staff to align strategy and activities at the corporate level.

    The position of emergency management within a utility is an indicator of the maturity of the day-to-day emergency (outage) management organization (EMO), and of the utility’s broader preparedness, response, communications and recovery practices. Forty percent of benchmark participants have established an emergency management leader at their organization’s executive level.

    The benchmark found that utilities where the leader of the EMO is a director or higher and reporting directly to the C-suite have been better able to mature their emergency management programs in virtually every category measured by our study. Participants who scored in the top third for governance maturity consistently scored highly in seven of the 10 categories reviewed. This finding reflects the reality that programs lead by an executive are generally well-resourced and able to drive all-hazards strategy, build capabilities, and approach emergency management as an enterprise-wide core competency.

  1. Conduct centralized, all-hazards planning so the enterprise can move quickly and effectively during all emergencies.

    Leading utilities make effective use of the time between emergencies to concentrate on risk mitigation and emergency preparedness. By developing a long-term vision and strategy and combining that vision with actionable tasks and efforts, industry leaders proactively identify hazards, then design and implement targeted approaches to reduce the likelihood of an incident and to mitigate potential consequences when an incident occurs.

    • In advance of an incident, emergency planning shapes budgeting and resource decisions to support enhanced preparation and response capabilities from the C-suite through to field operations.
    • Hazard-specific planning, in the form of annexes to a core plan, enables response and incident management personnel to activate quickly based upon the nature and scale of an incident, while maintaining uniform processes and procedures across the enterprise. This allows roles to be added as situations evolve without creating hiccups in operations.
    • It enables utilities to work proactively with outside organizations that might be collaborators in a response, enhancing the overall community’s level of preparedness.
  1. Value emergency communications planning at parity with emergency operations planning.

    The highest average maturity in the benchmark was for the communications category, which measured the processes, planning and implementation of a communications strategy before and during emergency incidents. Utilities that place a high priority on communications before, during and after emergencies are trusted allies for their customers, government officials and other stakeholders.

    Leading practice companies (25 percent of the benchmarked utilities) have in place an overarching communications plan with hazard-specific communications “modules” that, combined, provide a cohesive process to develop a communication strategy, effectively utilize new and evolving communication channels, and develop, gain approval, and disseminate incident-specific messaging that is accurate and consistent (known as One Voice messaging). One Voice messaging process is documented for all benchmark participants, but at varying degrees of integration with response operations. Most communications plans establish robust communications teams with well-defined roles and responsibilities and detailed processes to develop a strategy, utilize multiple channels and develop, integrate, and distribute messaging by identifying target stakeholders and audiences. These are in place before developing pre-approved, hazard-specific messaging to ensure that each stakeholder group receives meaningful, useful information during an emergency.

  1. Utilize the Incident Command System (ICS) to manage response operations and coordinate with outside response partners.

    Utilities are discovering that ICS can be useful to improve incident-response operations. In most cases, the benchmarked companies have adapted ICS to their existing culture and operational structures, and in leading practice utilities, an all-hazards, ICS-based organization is used from the executive level through to front-line field operations, regardless of incident type. This consists of three levels:

    • Crisis Management Team – Senior executives who provide policy direction, support and strategic leadership to protect the brand and financial interests of the company;
    • Incident Support Team – Typically directors and above activated when incidents are widespread and may require coordinated responses across a large geography; and
    • Incident Management Teams – On-the-ground teams responsible for tactical response and incident management.

The 2016 benchmark uncovered a need for utilities to utilize technology innovation to improve incident management, response operations, data collection and analysis, and crew notification processes. It’s clear that the next phase of emergency management maturity will lean heavily on greater use of digital tools to enhance situational awareness, communications, and information sharing among internal and external stakeholders.

As utilities move forward, industry leaders will adopt digital solutions that support greater resiliency by automating and streamlining outage detection, prevention, and restoration.  Innovation will enable utilities to adapt, harden, and prepare their systems, technologies, processes, assets, and people to face myriad challenges and transform into more profitable and capable organizations. 

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