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Infrastructure Damage/Condition Assessment: Utilizing Collaborative Emergency Management Principles to Plan for Seismic Events

The April/May/June 2012 print issue of PA TIMES published a series of articles on the topic of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery. The piece below is part  of a Student Symposia from that issue.

Chad Buechler

Utilities that provide basic services have increasingly adopted more traditional emergency management approaches to hazard mitigation and emergency planning as well as response and recovery. Utilities play critical support roles to public safety agencies, many of which maintain similar organizational structures, but may be required to extend responsibilities and take on new tasks. According to Gary Webb, a researcher at the Disaster Research Center, this concept is a familiar one that utility organizations can take into account in their response planning. For example, fire flow is provided directly by water utilities. Drainage and wastewater utilities are directly responsible for responding to environmental hazards such as spills, sewage overflows, and weather events that impact their systems. Earthquakes can have severe impacts on utility infrastructure, especially underground assets. Immediate emergency response activities include damage assessment. Utilities must plan to account for and protect the assets that are critical to service provision.

Utilities must plan to account for and protect the assets that are critical to service provision.

Damage assessment is a process that involves multiple levels of government and ultimately informs the decision to declare a disaster, activate higher level government support, and obtain future funds for hazard mitigation. Utilities can experience extensive damage to not only building facilities, but infrastructure itself. Water, storm and sewer mains can break, pumping systems are at risk of failure due to power utility disruptions, and dams can be overwhelmed by the impact of ground movement from earthquakes.

Traditional damage assessment processes focus more specifically on structural damage to buildings. The Applied Technology Council’s ATC 20 Post-Earthquake Disaster Assessment Methodology is considered the standard of care for post-earthquake structural assessment. In addition to structural building assessment, utilities are considered with the operational status of their infrastructure. Essentially, utilities ask the question, “Can we use this asset to provide basic utility service to our customer base and support other response entities?” FEMA accepts Detailed Damage Assessments performed with the ATC methodology. By making adjustments to the ATC Damage Assessment form so that it also assesses operational condition of utility infrastructure, a familiar product can be developed to share with other agencies and levels of government.

Due to the vast number of facilities requiring technical expertise for operation, it is critical for planning project staff to thoroughly engage technical operations staff to: compile a list of assets, determine the priority of infrastructure based on redundancy and service impact, document how the assets will be inspected, and designate the person who will inspect the assets. Due to the pervasiveness of GIS data in modern utilities, compiling the list of assets and their locations should be relatively easy. Determining the priority of assessing critical infrastructure is more difficult and requires extensive conversation and collaboration with subject matter experts. For example, Wastewater pumpstations must be inspected post-earthquake to detect and initiate a response to sewer overflow. Through face-to-face collaboration, a criticality model can be developed that includes variables like station age, accessibility, volume pumped and the existence of auxiliary power sources, i.e. generators. Other sectors of a utility’s assets should utilize similar criticality modeling and collaboration structures to effectively prioritize infrastructure.

An adapted ATC-20 assessment methodology can be used for infrastructure assessment. Assessors can be recruited and assigned responsibility through existing organizational structures. Pumpstation workers are an excellent choice for wastewater pumpstation assessment because they are familiar with the location, equipment and procedures that keep these assets functioning.

By compiling and prioritizing a list of assets and determining assessment processes and personnel through collaboration with technical subject matter experts, the ingredients for an effective plan exist. At this point, emergency management staff is able to apply the asset and criticality data when constructing a planning product that fits with the utility’s existing emergency plan, the municipality’s plan, as well as regional, state and federal frameworks.

Thus, during the planning process, utility organizations should consider a few points. First, traditional emergency management and damage assessment principles and practices can apply or transfer to utility emergency response planning. The ATC-20 Methodology is an excellent example of how damage assessment products can be modified and co-opted for utility infrastructure assessment. These existing products and practices provide a framework to which utilities can add their own subject matter expertise and institutional knowledge.

Second, emergency managers often lack the technical and operational knowledge to even begin the planning process, although utility-specific emergency planning staff members are working within their own organizations. The roles of project manager, scheduler, collaborator and consensus-builder are reinforced. In addition, emergency management staff members act as policy experts and use the data collected to construct a plan that fits within utility, local, regional state, and federal emergency management response planning efforts and incident management systems.

Finally, collaborative emergency management principles that have long been lauded as increasing the effectiveness of response through the promotion of interagency coordination can also be used to increase collaboration and effectiveness in the utility planning process. Naim Kapucu, in a 2007 study on four Florida hurricanes, shows how collaboration in the planning process increases the effectiveness of the emergency management process. Collaboration fuses technical silos and emergency management within large utilities and allows for planning products to form a cohesive regional and national framework.

Chad Buechler is a graduate student in the Department of Emergency Management at Jacksonville State University. Email: [email protected]

 Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.


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