Electrical Systems / Disaster Planning / Industrial Safety

Restoring power after a natural disaster: How to plan for the worst

Don't get caught unprepared – here's what your electrical emergency plan should cover.

By Chad Kennedy, Schneider Electric

We may not know exactly when or where a natural disaster will occur, but we can generally predict which type of natural disaster may happen in specific geographical regions. For example, businesses located in coastal areas know they are susceptible to hurricanes and storm surges, while those in low-lying regions next to large bodies of water may be prone to flooding. Businesses in these areas need to be aware of the potential for water-related issues to damage their electrical infrastructure, and they need to understand how to prevent and recover from them.

The best defense is a great offense

It is extremely important to have a contingency plan for continued operations in the event of a weather emergency. Actions taken during the first 24 to 48 hours of a disaster are critical in determining whether a business will fully recover. This short window means that facilities personnel must plan for a potential situation. There are a few simple steps that can be completed before an event takes place; taking these will help ensure quick and efficient restoration if electrical distribution and control equipment is exposed to water damage. They are:

  • Ensure that electrical equipment is properly maintained.
  • Develop a safety program that incorporates emergency procedures.
  • Be aware of the most current natural disaster recovery codes and standards.

Plan, plan, plan

Perhaps the most important element of disaster preparation is the development of an electrical emergency action plan (EEAP). This can be done using NFPA 70B, Chapter 32, “Electrical Disaster Recovery,” as a guide. It helps facilities personnel determine potential catastrophic events and categorize their potential impact to the system. With an EEAP in place, facility managers can better understand electrical assets, critical operational infrastructure, and electrical risks, allowing them to better plan for short- and long-term power restoration. This will reduce uncertainty after a disaster and help mitigate the immediate financial impact of a disaster.

Having an EEAP in place is critical to safely and efficiently restoring operations. Employers and employees should be very familiar with its procedures. Although creating this plan can seem overwhelming, there are several recommended steps facilities personnel can take to ensure that a plan is all-encompassing and easily actionable. Considerations for developing an EEAP include:

  • Determining priorities: Prioritizing critical functions is essential to efficiently and safely restoring power. The EEAP should clearly state what the business considers an electrical emergency, including obvious instances such as the flooding of backup generators. It should also identify the electrical equipment critical to business operations. This can be done by tracing the incoming utility source of power to every piece of electrical equipment feeding critical machines. It should also include an analysis of availability in the market, lead times, and a plan for when the equipment no longer functions.
  • Outlining emergency service contracts: After a disaster occurs, it may be challenging to negotiate pricing or lead times for the necessary resources to restore electrical power. Pre-negotiating emergency service contracts is important. Many companies find inflated pricing and insufficient support in the event of a disaster.

    • Companies should exercise due diligence and receive estimated response times and procedures for large-scale project coordination.
    • The EEAP should also define internal and external responsibilities. Details on a customer’s responsibility, such as providing one-line diagrams, energization procedures, and coordination and communication activities, must be discussed with all vendors involved in restoring power. Third-party vendors should also provide a procedure outlining their approach to facility emergencies, including the assessment of damage, mobilization of resources, the appointment of a project manager, and the identification of a command center.
    • Companies should define the expected equipment and services in detail. For example, an electrical distribution service company working toward power restoration can define the equipment scope from the utility service entrance (13.8 kV) to low-voltage switchgear (480 V). This would make the associated work scope include equipment installation and commissioning for both temporary and permanent situations.
    • Emergency contracts should outline specific time periods for validity. The EEAP plan should also have expiration dates for self-auditing purposes.
  • Providing contact information: The last section should include contact information for all internal and external parties who have a defined role with respect to restoring power after an emergency.

Always prioritize safety

With safety a top concern, companies must keep in mind that restoring power to water-damaged equipment may cause damage to personnel and property without warning. In addition to developing an EEAP, other disaster preparation recommendations include:

  • Being aware of the latest industry codes and standards and any local emergency response plans.  Ensure that emergency response leaders understand that the facility has an active EEAP and review any details required to ensure the EEAP will be supported locally. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1600 is the primary guidance document for site wide disaster recovery and should be used to provide similar actions for impacts beyond the electrical system. NFPA 70B, “Recommended Practice for Electrical Equipment Maintenance,”also shares information on disaster recovery and emergency response.
  • Understand the effects of water damage to electrical equipment. Flooding may require that equipment be replaced and reconditioned. In accordance with Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) rules and the NFPA 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, services must be performed by qualified personnel who have demonstrated skills and knowledge of the equipment’s operation and construction and have received safety training to identify and avoid the hazards involved.

When businesses are prepared for natural disasters, the damage caused by them can be lessened. Restoring electrical power is a crucial part of the recovery process after a disaster, with EEAPs playing a critical role in recovery efforts. NFPA, the National Electrical Code (NEC), OSHA, and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) provide multiple standards and recommendations to help in understanding and developing contingency plans to protect against threats from natural disasters.