Got Power? The Role of the Power Company During a Disaster

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So, securing the grid from cyber and I’m pretty comfortable that we have effective controls in place for that. But also, the physical security side, our physical security department which we share an office suite with. We work very closely with; they deal with the encroachment of the homeless population. They deal with the encroachment of drones. People were flying drones have substations and power plants. And then there’s just always your physical security issues. You have trespass incidents and stuff like that.

Steven Kuhr

Todd DeVoe:      Hi and welcome to The EM Weekly Show. And this is your emergency management podcast. This week we are talking to Steve Kuhr about emergency management and public utilities, specifically power companies.

Todd DeVoe:      Power is one of those partners that sometimes we forget about until we need them, but I also want to recognize the linesmen out there that work in harsh and dangerous conditions every day. They were their lives to keep the power on, and they truly are first responders. We need to recognize them just as we do our partners in fire, law, and EMS.

Todd DeVoe:      Hey, just to let you know, EM Student is coming back on, and we are so happy to make this announcement, and we have some exciting news about EM Student. So tune in into our first refreshed episode coming soon.

Todd DeVoe:      Now onto the interview.

Todd DeVoe:      Well I’m excited to have Steve Kuhr with me today, and we’re going to be talking about utility emergency management, and he works for Colorado Springs Utilities, and he is the emergency manager/continuity manager. So Steve, welcome to EM Weekly.

Steven Kuhr:       Hi Todd, how are you?

Todd DeVoe:      I’m doing well sir. So, one of the things that we see when we have events in the world, earthquakes, fires, you know, whatnot, tornadoes, hurricanes are the fact that we need to have utility companies coming in and, and to rebuild us. And it’s one of the major partners in emergency management. So this is why we have you on the show today, but before we get into that, tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in emergency management.

Steven Kuhr:       Sure. Thank you for having me. My emergency management career goes back for nearly 40 years. I started doing emergency management when I was with EMS in New York City, Now part of the New York City fire department. I was doing special operations, mass casualty management. And, I took an interest in emergency management. From there it was an easy slide into New York City emergency management when mayor Rudy Giuliani created the office of emergency management in 1996, and I was asked to join the leadership team, and as they say, the rest of the rest is kinda history.

Todd DeVoe:      That’s great. And, for those of you that have been listening to my background’s is upstate New York, so we chewed some of the same dirt during our time in business. So, you moved from there, and then eventually you made your way out to Colorado, and you work in utilities. What’s the, what’s the biggest challenge for utility emergency management compared to say municipal government emergency management?

Steven Kuhr:       So, our job in utility emergency management is kind of interesting and also kind of fascinating because our counterparts in community emergency management and my team work extremely close with the El Paso County Office of Emergency Management, El Paso County, Colorado, the Colorado Springs Office of Emergency Management. We serve the same masters, the community looks at the public, as their public, their constituency. And we looked at them as our customer base that therein lies the nexus between community and utility emergency management. We’re focused on sustaining utility services uninterrupted utility services all the time and certainly during emergencies. And here in Colorado, the natural hazards that we do with our wildfire, floods. We’ve had two presidential; he’s declared flood disasters in my time here. We had a dare to say catastrophic wind storm two years ago, January 2017 when we lost 40,000 customers. So, so we deal with those kinds of things, and that’s how we work together with the city. So while we’re working to restore utility services, our team is supporting operations with restoration. We’re working with the community emergency management that is standing up shelters and housing people and feeding them, et Cetera.

Todd DeVoe:      So, a few of the major events that I had worked during my time, even when I was back in New York, all have kind of related around utilities. At some point, we had the wildfires here in California where we have transmission lines that burned up and then back east. When I was a volunteer firefighter, we had a couple of ice storms which knocked out power for days. And you see groups of linemen coming in and doing great work and getting power back up. Do you guys coordinate that type of stuff as well for nationwide or your area?

Steven Kuhr:       We do. We deployed some assets including a member of my team to Florida a year and a half ago for Hurricane Irma. We had, teams on the ground. We had a member of my team deployed along with a team of 26 emergency managers from Colorado to support EOC operations wherever the state assigns them. And they ended up in Monroe County. And Ken on my team was able to, as a career emergency manager, not only integrate well with the local emergency management, but he worked with utilities, the electric and water utilities. He knew the language; he knew the secret handshake so to speak. And he was able to develop that interaction and that coordination that’s so well needed. And we do have, as a municipal utility, we have mutual aid agreements with utilities, certainly throughout Colorado and as a utility as part of the industry, we do have mutual aid agreements where we can deploy and bring in assets where needed. Most recently this windstorm I mentioned we requested mutual aid, and we received an electric line crew to support that,

Todd DeVoe:      Walk me through the mutual aid that you guys do with the utilities. What does it look like? How does it work? And then how do you activate it?

Steven Kuhr:       Just by way of background, Colorado Springs, utilities as a municipal for service utility, we provide electricity from generation through delivery to your account, meaning in our transmission, distribution, etc. The water we own and operate 26 reservoirs across the state. And my team’s responsible for emergency planning for those reservoirs. So, we provide drinking water to the city, parts of the region, the wastewater and natural gas. We don’t produce natural gas. We distributed natural gas, so mutual aid on any of those services, it looks like a call in or calls out to our sister utilities. So, we worked with a big investor-owned utility in Colorado Springs. Excell energy and my team and I very close with their emergency management team and our electric operations folks are very close to their electric operations folks. It’s just a phone call. So, what my team will do, we’ll support mutual aid with logistics. We might help with setting up, launching a staging area, certainly staging area and equipment and but lodging, food and stuff like that. If we’re requesting mutual aid in, typically we have a pretty big emergency going on in town in our enterprise command center, which would be the equivalent to an emergency operations center. And another parlance is activated in our logistics section would be supporting that.

Todd DeVoe:      Well, it’s kind of cool. So you get this call, you say, Hey, I need to send x amount of people. Do you guys have like a team that’s set up for mutual aid? I’m normally sending these ten people to, to respond or how does that decision get made on your part?

Steven Kuhr:       It is. It depends on what the need is. So, during the 2013 flooding, that was one of our, that was the first presidential he declared disaster. And I had just started about a month before this, we had significant flooding throughout Colorado, and we had received a request from Excel energy to support mutual aid for disruption and guest services. So, our gas operations team at that time determine what was needed, including the deployment of safety personnel to…cause we’re very big on safety. So we’ll deploy leadership, operational folks, engineering folks and safety folks as needed. And we’ll, we’ll work just like we expect, just like we would set up, you know, the logistic to support that we have the same agreement. We would expect the same from Excel or any other utility that we respond to. Just like when we went to Florida, the state had taken care of the lodging and stuff like that.

Todd DeVoe:      That’s great. So, it’s just kind of run like any other mutual aid system then just with the utilities.

Steven Kuhr:       It is. And we have mutual aid agreements. They are written mutual aid agreements with the American Gas Association; the American Water works Association. We’re a member of something called CO=WERN many states have what’s called WERN or water agency response network. So, in Colorado, it’s called CO-WERN for Colorado CO. We as an organization, one of our water, one of our general managers and water was the chair for a few years. And uh, we have signatories across the state that are part of this. So if we get a request for a, here’s a perfect example. We got a request a couple of years ago from a small water utility in the Pikes Peak region where they were losing x number of gallons of water every day, and they needed leak search crews. And we analyze the request that this request, you go into a portal, you put in the request, you identify what your need is, and water utilities from the, from throughout the state determine where they want to respond. Well, this was pretty close to our community. So, we decided as an organization to support this. So, folks in our water construction department, we’re able to respond and provide leak search capabilities, and they found them, they found a leak and we’re able to uh, to make that fix

Todd DeVoe:      a strong work right there. That’s awesome.

Steven Kuhr:       Yeah, it is awesome. You’re coming out of state and community and private sector, emergency management. The work that we do, in utility, especially a major forest service utility for a population 500,000 in a beautiful part of the world is fascinating.

Todd DeVoe:      We always talk about the first responders, EMS, fire, police, and sometimes we forget about the lineman that are out there, and they are putting their lives on at risk when they’re when they’ve given us utilities back. And then daily, I just want to right now, you know, tell the linemen out there that I do appreciate what they do and, and I think that you guys are all part of the team. So just want to kind of put that out there right now.

Steven Kuhr:       I appreciate them having common and having been in the, in public safety fire and EMS world and the emergency management world, the term is usually EMS is the third service. So, utilities are kind of like the fourth service because quite frankly without, without the lifeline services, utilities provide a specialty electric and water utilities, there is nothing else. Not, not in contemporary American society. So, yes. And I can tell you that I’m working, working upon a pole or working in a ditch on the water or gas side requires special training, requires a certain skillset and requires certain wherewithal that allows you to, to understand what the need is when you’re doing that. Even during times of significant weather events, snow, severe, convective, whether it’s tough stuff.

Todd DeVoe:      There are very few things that scare me in the world. I’ve been through a lot of stuff in my life, but electricity is one of them that just really kind of, I don’t want to mess with those men and women that climb those poles, and they have to go into those dishes. That’s some hard work right there. They have some internal fortitude that some people probably don’t have, so yes, for sure.

Steven Kuhr:       It’s competitive. We’re hosting here in Colorado Springs in March, the American public power association, the Lineman’s Rodeo from across the country are going to come and compete for utility poles on the west side of town and one of our park areas, and this is a pretty big event for us. We’re very proud to be hosting this and as you say, not only does it require a certain skill set and training, they love to compete. I think you’re right. When you say it’s just like fire and EMS, you know how proud firefighters, EMS and police officers are. Our linemen are just as proud as what they do, and we’re proud to be hosting this and I’m even more proud to say that my team has been asked to lead the planning for this and one of my team members is really taking the lead and doing an awesome job and getting this set up.

Todd DeVoe:      Well good luck to those guys out there that are going to be participating in that. That’s kind of exciting for them. It is always nice to see Competition, and good competition is healthy stuff right there. And show your skills.

Todd DeVoe:      I want to change direction here a little bit, and you talked about power poles, and that’s where the conversations we’ve been having here in California specifically associated with the wind events that are starting some of the fires, and there’s a movement now in California right now. I understand it, and I think I’m on board with it. I haven’t thought out the whole process yet of taking power poles and burying the cables or somehow or another fortify and those power poles. What do you think of that move?

Steven Kuhr:       Well, you know, Colorado Springs is a growth city, and I’m going back probably 40 years now to say a decision was made here by leadership in this organization many years ago to burry infrastructure as the city group. And it’s interesting when we say that because when we had that windstorm I mentioned earlier, the outages were pretty much not pretty much the, were centered in the area where we still have overhead distribution because it was, it was uh, the, the old infrastructure and we had very few outages if any in areas where we’ve built infrastructure was so was Colorado Springs has grown to the north and the northwest and northeast, it’s all been buried. So, I certainly think it’s a good idea, but as a measure of mitigation, but there’s certainly a cost there, and utilities will have to weigh the cost benefit against you know, who’s paying for that. Are they just going to eat that expense, or they passed the expense to the customer? So it’s a, it’s a challenge to answer.

Todd DeVoe:      I talked to Brock Long back in January, he talked about the fact that there are monies that are sitting on a table because emergency managers don’t know it’s there and you’re talking somewhere like around $8 billion worth of mitigation funds. Could we use some of those monies to offset the cost of burying utilities?

Steven Kuhr:       You know, that’s an interesting question because most utilities or most of your larger electric utilities or investor-owned utilities, not municipal utilities such as we are and don’t have access to federal funds, even during a declared disaster, the other insurance is supposed to cover it. So, it’s a really good question that deserves further analysis. I mean, I certainly would support the idea, and we’re already doing that, as I mentioned, to do it retrospectively and to have the federal government pay for it. There may be something that needs to be analyzed in the code of federal regulations 44 or maybe even needs to be answered by Congress. That money is just sitting in there; it doesn’t mean it could just be used by private organizations.

Todd DeVoe:      No, I understand that. And that’s true. I am just looking at this as the overall picture is a public safety issue, especially in California or even back in New York for that matter. When we have those ice storms, and we’re out without power for weeks know something that if we can stop that from occurring, that there are life safety issues associated with it. So anyway, that’s just me. That’s kind of the way my brain works. Sometimes

Steven Kuhr:       Brock would have to answer this or his recovery mitigation folks, but as I recall, there is some opportunity for organizations that provide government like services, and I think this is where hospitals started to benefit from, from remuneration for federal disaster funds over the past few years. So, I’m not sure that’s been answered on the utility side. It should be an open question.

Todd DeVoe:      So what can we as emergency managers do better to build the relationship and or understand the role of utilities in a disaster?

Steven Kuhr:       Well, fortunately for, for the fire department, Police Department, emergency management agencies here in Colorado Springs, they have one utility. We, as I mentioned, electric, gas, water, and waste water services and our relationship. And you know, it may be because we’re a mid-sized city, it also may be just because people are just awesome here. And we experienced a catastrophe in 2012 the year before I started here, the Waldo Canyon fire burned close to 20,000 acres. We lost 348 homes in Colorado Springs on the west side of town, and it resulted in two deaths and a significant loss of utility infrastructure. So this city has been visited by disaster. The year after that we had the 2013 flooding, and then two years later we had another presidentially declared fun of it. So we’ve learned how important it is to work together. The other reason I think that’s easy for us is that I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to recruit and retain a significant emergency management talent.

Steven Kuhr:       So, the folks that work for me have community emergency management experience, and they’re able to bridge that gap fairly easily. So, my point is to get the answer to your question is the emergency manager should seek out their utilities. Uh, maybe if they have multiple utilities. And unfortunately, it’s like that you will have one organization providing electric one, providing gas, water, waste water, etcetera, for forming or creating sort of an infrastructure council or a utility council and getting everybody to the table and just-just establishing those relationships. You know, I’ve been saying this for almost 40 years, the worst time to exchange a business card is meeting someone the first time I had to command posts or in an EOC. So now’s the time to seek out your utilities. Many of them have emergency managers, your larger utility; certainly, where they don’t, they’ll have somebody, perhaps safety or security that you can establish a relationship with.

Todd DeVoe:      Steve, what is your biggest challenge?

Steven Kuhr:       I think the biggest challenge is worrying about the sustainability of services to our customers. And also that, I’m going to say two things in life. Safety from a person, from another perspective, which we haven’t spoken about. So it’s a challenge for my team to understand the mechanical and engineering aspects of our services so we can support them. So when, when we get a call and say a particular substation is out and we have dozens of electric substations throughout the city, but a number of them are critical where they interconnect us to the grid. It’s important for my team to understand what that means so we can start the contingency or continuity planning process. But we’re also responsible for emergency planning around our dams, and we’re very concerned about what are dams are extremely safe. Every one of our dams is rated by the State Dam Safety Office as the at the highest level of safety.

Steven Kuhr:       We worry about them, and we worry making sure that we can make notifications if we have an emergency of the dam. And while it’s the responsibility of the local emergency managers to have those evacuation plans, I worry about that because if one of our dams causes damage or injuries, it’s on us. So we work with our community emergency managers as far out as Eagle County, which is 200 miles from Colorado Springs. So, we have a major reservoir to make sure that they have emergency notification capabilities and evacuation plans in place that would be effective. So those are kind of like high-end things. I, I kind of worry about

Todd DeVoe:      How often do you reach out to your community partners? Is it every month or as needed? How does that work for you?

Steven Kuhr:       I dare say kind of a daily as needed. The community emergency managers here, we’re very close with. It’s kind of like; it’s kind of like an odd question because we’re just always on the phone with them. So, but we do have formal meetings that the city policy group meets bimonthly and our leadership and myself and members of my team participate in that when we meet with the fire chief, police chief, emergency management director, heads of other agencies. And then I had more of an emergency management level. My team and I meet with the city emergency management folks are fairly regularly and just sort of like exchanging ideas and hey, what we’re doing, what are you doing? And there’s also what we call an emergency management collaborative and the Pikes Peak region that was started just over time.

I came here by the city emergency management director and that’s grown to about 70, the emergency management representatives from city emergency management, county emergency management utilities, which is us all the universities, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs has an emergency manager, Colorado College has a public safety director that does emergency management, all the five military installations in town, send their emergency managers to this state, homeland security and emergency management attend this thing. So, it’s become a well-oiled machine. I also federal homeland security attends as well, the critical infrastructure folks. So, we’re pretty tight down here. I got to tell you, having done emergency management a few different places in the U.S. This is a very gratifying place to work because people do network and work well together. It is a phone call.

Todd DeVoe:      Yeah, I’m blessed to have that same working relationship in Orange County, California because we play well together in the sandbox as I like to say. And you’re right; when you’re talking about exchanging business cards, you always want to do it at over coffee, over the back of the patrol car.

Steven Kuhr:       You got it. Absolutely.

Todd DeVoe:      So, moving on here and talk a little bit about security and then I know you do continuity as well, but when you’re working with like the grid type stuff, what are the challenges there?

Steven Kuhr:       Well, I think our biggest threat to… not specific to the grid, but I think our biggest contemporary threat of cyber right now, I think we just need to look at these ransomware attacks of which we had a major ransomware attack and Colorado in 2018 where our State Department of transportation suffered the consequences of a ransomware attack over series of weeks to the point that the governor declared a state of emergency and activated the EOC to, to manage this. And we have a really solid-state emergency management director of the led the state through recovery. So, we’ve looked at that pretty closely, and we’ve taken that. We’re taking that seriously as far as continuity planning goes in 2019. So securing the grid from cyber and I’m pretty comfortable that we have, effective controls in place for that. But also, the physical security side, our physical security department, which we share an office suite with. We work very closely with; they deal with the encroachment of the homeless population. They deal with the encroachment of drones. People were flying drones have substations and power plants. So, and then it’s just always your physical security issues your trespass incident. And you know, stuff like that.

Todd DeVoe:      I remember a few years ago here in California, somebody was driving around throwing acid bombs into some of the substations. And that was when we started looking at securing and what that means with the substations and what the impact on that was. That was my first look into what it means to look at security for grids. And it’s, and again, that’s a job that I don’t think that I would want to tackle right now. But you guys, I think, and when I say you guys I am talking about all of the utilities, for the most part, are have a pretty good handle on it. And I do commend you guys for, for working quickly and strongly on that area.

Steven Kuhr:       Well, you know, California produced a Metcalf that the industry, not just in the United States but abroad took notice of where, uh, in April, I believe it was 2013, Pacific Gas and Electric suffered an attack at their Metcalf substation, which is in California. And there were electric cables caught in a, in a manhole that led to a high-powered rifle attack on the substation. Power. Never really was lost or was lost for any great period, but it resulted in an environmental incident because a lot of the substation on cooling oil ended up leaking. So, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI jointly with PG&E did a national road show, and I was fortunate enough to attend one of those briefings, and so the industry took note of that, and we’ve worked collectively as an industry to strengthen our security around our substations, et cetera. We also have our regulations to follow under on the wards, cold NAERC and North American electric reliability corporation, which is a part of the US Department of Energy. So, we have NAERC standards to comply with about security. Probably should leave with that.

Todd DeVoe:      All right. I’m going to ask another kind of question might be a little a long to answer two things. We had two issues that happened in the last few years. We had the northeast power outage for the cascading event, and then we had the outage in the western United States where we’re a cascading event started in Arizona. What can we do to reduce a cascading power outage?

Steven Kuhr:       Well, I think to some extent you’re talking about the 2003 northeast power outage, right. That started in like Ohio, went up into Canada that gave birth to what I just described, the North American reliability corporation. So there are, there are standards that are put in place now for what’s called the best, the bulk electric system. And we certainly, we, we generate, transmit and distribute electricity. So, we’re, we’re responsible for complying with those standards as well. So we, so we do that. And since 2003 systems have matured and the interaction between electric utilities and protocols between the electric utilities mature, you know, we have what’s called spinning reserve. So, if a utility in our, let me call it a mutual aid region, which would be southern Colorado experiences, an outage, we’re responsible for compensating for some of that loss within the electric grid within the grid itself because it is an interconnected thing. We’re spinning extra electric to compensate for a dip. And our next closest largest power plant is the regulation. So, I know their power plants are prepared just to support us. So, so since these major outages you’re talking about, there are programs that have that have been put in place to compensate for that.

Todd DeVoe:      Before I let you go I have a couple of questions to ask you. So one is what book, books or publications do you recommend to somebody in emergency management?

Steven Kuhr:       That’s a great question, and I’m going to, I’m going to give you two books. Every emergency manager in the United States has to read future crimes by Mark Goodman and what does future crimes? Future crime is a book by an FBI futurist who provides in plain English analysis of today’s cyber security environment. If you want to learn about the dark web, if you want to learn about sock puppets and if you want to learn about ransomware attacks and the big abusive data and where your information is going, where you log into your Gmail or Yahoo or whatever free internet-based email you’re using, you need to read that. And I think emergency managers are so focused on their local hazards, meaning their natural hazards, wildfire, flood, blizzard, ice storms, that I just don’t feel that we’re giving enough attention to cyber as an industry.

Steven Kuhr:       A cyber-attack will bring a community to which needs are Colorado DOT attack I’d talked about. And the city of Atlanta, last year as well was hit, and it was hit same malware variants. So it was, it’s out there. These cases should be studying future crimes. The other one is The Moment of Truth by a friend and colleague and emergency management on in New York, Kelly and McKinney. Kelly, tell us a story. almost written like a novel, about, emergency management, the United States and where the failures are and our ability to respond to catastrophic events in a way that we as we probably should in a first world nation such as the U.S. So and it, so those two books I think should be first line reading for every emergency manager in 2019

Todd DeVoe:      and The Moment of Truth made the top 10 books an emergency manager should have, for their shelves, so that was kind of, it’s a good book, and I read it is outstanding and I love the way he makes it a story but has lessons in there for us as emergency managers and then also can bring home what it is to be involved with some of the incidents. So that was a well-written book.

Steven Kuhr:       It was. Yeah, it was a little plug. Kelly will be providing the keynote address at the Colorado State Emergency Management Conference. We’ll be doing the opening keynote. So we’re very fortunate to, Kelly agreed to come to our conference this year.

Todd DeVoe:      That’s awesome. That’s a really, yeah, it’s great. And we are trying to get Kelly, Kelly and I have been working on trying to get him on the show just to have, trying to work out our schedule so hopefully in the future or if you guys are listening to this check out his episode because he will be on the, on the show shortly. All right. If you had the opportunity to talk to all the emergency managers in the United States at one time or the world for that matter, what would you tell them?

Steven Kuhr:       I would tell him a couple of things. I would tell him, dude, I get it. I know how hard it is to work within the political environment to be an emergency manager, navigating the politics, the budget, community culture. I, you know, before Katrina, emergency management was not really on the political radar. It wasn’t until Katrina that we started to see politicians take note of emergency management. All the changes after 9/11 that President Bush made a were the creation of homeland security and splitting FEMA apart, stuff like that. We’re not necessarily the cost of failures in emergency management. Katrina, so many failures in emergency management. So, I’d say I get it. Stay the course. Develop a program, promote the program and worked so hard to get the ear of your leadership, whether it’s executive leadership in an organization like mine or community political leadership.

Steven Kuhr:       And the other thing is, you know, this may come out of Kelly’s book. You need to have a great imagination. You have to imagine the worst that can happen in; you need to apply for it. You need to plan for those unanticipated, unexpected events. Cause if you live in a place like Colorado, you know you’re getting wildfires, you’ll plan for that. If you live in a place like upstate New York, you’ve already got ice storms; you’re going to plan for that. I, we get ice storms or Colorado, not like they do on the east coast. If you live in a coastal area on the east coast you’re going to get hurricanes; you have to imagine what you have not thought of yet and plan for that. And for me, I think at 2019 that’s going to be cyber. I think cyber is going to continue to be a threat that emergency managers need to focus on and have a capability, continuity plans to respond to.

Todd DeVoe:      Well, Steve, thank you so much for your time today. It was a pleasure having you on the show.

Steven Kuhr:       I appreciate it, Todd. We appreciate the invitation and a look forward to working with you in the future.





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1 thought on “Got Power? The Role of the Power Company During a Disaster”

  1. Great discussion – Steve has turned into a Utility EM Manager. It was always trail- by- fire in NYC. Steve hit all the EM preparedness and response key actions that apply to his utility. Great interview.

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