Utilities Seek Greater Collaboration, Coordination to Improve Disaster Response

 

Washington—Dec. 18, 2018 – The Utilities Technology Council (UTC) and the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suggesting ways to improve hurricane response and recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael – including a strategic approach involving ongoing meetings between the FCC and energy policymakers to educate each other about respective policies affecting the energy and communications industries.

“These meetings could greatly help to inform the Commission’s policies and provide a forum for considering ways to improve service restoration and cross-sector coordination in the aftermath of emergencies like Hurricane Michael,” EEI and UTC said.

Meetings between the FCC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) also “will help to break down silos that may be impairing the ability of electric companies, communications providers and first responders to work together before, during and after hurricanes like Michael. Moreover, this may create synergies that will improve emergency response in the future,” the groups said.

EEI and UTC filed the comments in response to the FCC’s inquiry into the response and restoration of telecommunications services following Hurricane Michael in October 2018.

As the comments highlight, less than a week after Hurricane Michael devastated the Southeast, electric utilities had restored electricity to more than 2.6 million—or approximately 95 percent of—customers impacted by the storm. Electric utilities of all sizes and types–investor-owned, public power, and electric cooperatives–mobilized an army of more than 35,000 workers from 27 states and Canada as the storm approached to restore power safely and as quickly as possible. Much of this workforce and their equipment was pre-positioned prior to Hurricane Michael making landfall.

In their comments to the FCC, UTC and EEI suggested that telecommunications service providers consider taking steps to harden their infrastructure in areas prone to hurricanes and other natural disasters. Noting that electric utilities in Florida are undergoing a massive, decades-long effort to harden their infrastructure in vulnerable areas, EEI and UTC suggested that telecommunications service providers in the state consider performing a similar exercise.

“Electric companies in Florida have gone through an extensive infrastructure hardening program for the electrical grid; and communications service providers would likely see similar positive results by hardening their networks,” the groups said. “Some examples of infrastructure hardening would be strengthening towers and poles to withstand powerful winds, such as the 155 mph force winds during Hurricane Michael. In addition, implementing extended back up power at wireless towers and wireline communication network centers and 911 call centers would also help communications providers to maintain communications when commercial power is unavailable.”

Moreover, to help address the issues of fiber cuts during the restoration process, the groups suggested that telecommunications providers consider designing networks to avoid “single points of failure,” such as pre-positioning temporary microwave systems if fiber cuts are expected in the aftermath of a severe storm.

Recognizing that Hurricane Michael’s winds gusted as high as 129 mph, EEI and UTC stated that some amount of fiber cuts could have been anticipated, whether caused by the storm or debris-removal crews during the clean-up process. The lack of a backup system or alternative communications “in the area made the practical impact of these fiber cuts worse than it would have been otherwise,” EEI and UTC said. “Another likely contributing factor to fiber cuts could be construction practices by fiber companies. For example, underground fiber placed near poles (in some cases even touching poles) makes damage to fiber when the pole is replaced more likely. A further contributing factor is when cables are left lying on the ground for extended periods of time, where anyone or anything could deliberately or inadvertently cut it and probably assume that the fiber was already broken or inoperable.”

To prevent or at least reduce the number of fiber cuts in future storms, UTC and EEI suggested greater collaboration and involvement between the electricity and telecommunications industries and their regulators.

“…[E]lectric companies have previously suggested to the Commission that tagging fiber lines would be helpful for electric companies to identify which attachments on the poles belonged to which communications providers; and EEI and UTC reiterate this request to urge communications providers to tag their fiber lines as a policy that would promote expedited hurricane response and service restoration,” the groups said. “Another solution is for telecommunications service providers to provide locators to electric company crews to facilitate locating underground facilities prior to excavation. Finally, network designs need to account for the fact that some damage and loss of service while clearing debris may be unavoidable.”

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About UTC
The Utilities Technology Council (UTC) is a global trade association dedicated to serving critical infrastructure providers. Through advocacy, education and collaboration, UTC creates a favorable business, regulatory and technology environment for our members who own or operate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) systems in support of their core business. For more information: UTC.org