Are Utilities Ready for Hurricane Sandy?

While utilities practice safety first, once a crisis has passed they hit the ground running, all to clean up the torrent of debris and to turn the lights back on… What’s the protocol during such critical times? The corporate structure collapses to facilitate decision making. Power is then shifted to a centralized disaster-response team that is given the authority to carry out the utility’s mission. As such, “war rooms” form and meetings begin with key personnel.

Story length: 855 words; Access the full story here.

Elizabeth Williams (Colorado State University) suggests some key “Takeaways” on this story:

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we have seen utility companies work to restore services to the millions who lost electricity, gas, and water.  As the article points out, during these disasters, “the corporate structure collapses to facilitate decision making.”  The decision-making processes described in this article mirror the processes of emergency response service providers (i.e., fire, police).

Emergency response organizations operate as para-military organizations–utilizing the chain-of-command and relying on strong leadership.  During times of emergency these organizations are able to respond quickly because each individual knows their role.  Emergency responders do not question leadership and react as they were trained.  Incident commanders take responsibility for decision-making and direct activity.

What is particularly interesting about this article is that public utilities are not typically as centralized as other emergency response organizations.  Yet, public utilities begin to operate in this fashion during emergencies like Superstorm Sandy.  As the article points out, leaders gather in “war rooms” as they coordinate activities.  The centralized structure is important for three reasons:

  1. Leaders of the organization gather, process, and disseminate information.  One key leadership function is to coordinate with other emergency response personnel, local municipalities, state governments, as well as federal organizations such as FEMA.  Centralizing leadership allows for this coordination to occur.
  2. Centralization of decision-making allows for the organization to assess material constraints and to make informed decisions as to where to deploy precious resources.
  3. Individuals on the front-line can focus on doing the job for which they were trained and not spend valuable time making decisions.  In the research that I have conducted with emergency response organizations, front-line individuals want to focus on completing their task (i.e., helping those in need) and are often happy to leave the decision-making and conflict-management activities to those higher in the chain-of-command.

While we typically extol more participative organizational structures, events like Hurricane Sandy remind us that sometimes, in order to respond appropriately, organizations must rely on a more centralized structure and employees must be trained to respond within this type of structure.

Read more “Takeaways” from Elizabeth and other scholars here.

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