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The night the lights went out in San Francisco.

The Night the Lights Went Out in San Francisco

BACK IN THE EARLY 1980S, THE PACIFIC GAS & ELECtric Company (PG&E) in San Francisco--the country's largest investor-owned public utility--began wondering how it would handle operations if a major earthquake hit. On October 17, 1989, the company wondered no more.

The earthquake did an estimated $100 million in damage to the company's facilities, at least $6 million of which was in the Bay Area alone. Other losses the company suffered such as overtime and materials are still being assessed. Combine that figure with the $100 million, and the cost for a company that services nearly 11 million people will, no doubt, be astronomical. And according to scientists, the big earthquake is yet to come.

How does a company the size of PG&E, which employs more than 26,000 people, manage to keep operations running when catastrophe strikes? It probably cannot unless it has an effective disaster management plan in place, which was the case for PG&E. Roughly 1.4 million electric customers lost service after the earthquake. Within 12 hours, a million of them were back on-line. The morning after the earthquake, two thirds of the city of San Francisco had power.

If there was ever a case of perfect timing, PG&E is an example. Just four months earlier, the company staged a mock drill to test the effectiveness of its disaster management plan for earthquakes--the first such drill in the company's 84-year history!

Yet, in a state infamous for earthquakes, why did it take PG&E 84 years to develop a plan for what it would do not if but when an earthquake struck? The answer is simple. "Gas and electric utility companies are extremely good at dealing with disasters," explains Lyman H. Shaffer, PG&E's director of security. "They deal with them all the time. Probably 99.5 percent or more of our disasters are handled by our local people. They do it all the time and they are very competent.

"But, in 1980," continues Shaffer, "the company began looking at what it would do in a massive disaster that would require an enormous allocation of resources between regions in some centralized direction," noting that the company had never been faced with that problem in the past. Before Shaffer came on board in 1982, the company had created an emergency planning coordinator and put together what Shaffer calls "bootstrap plans" in 1981. And that, basically, was the extent of the company's disaster management plan.

In 1984, things changed. That year, an earthquake struck the Coalinga area, just a few miles outside Fresno. "It destroyed our office in Coalinga, and it caused a lot of local operating problems," says Shaffer. As a result of that earthquake, the company put together a panel to look at some of the global issues in emergency planning.

"A couple of good things came out of that," notes Shaffer. "Our computer center is in the basement of our building, which is typical of most major corporations. So we created a backup computer facility in Fairfield, which is about 60 miles northeast of San Francisco.

"In addition, most of our electric power is centrally dispatched," explains Shaffer. "We have a power control center, where we bring in power from the northeast and from the various power plants and dispatch it. We didn't have an effective backup for that system. If you lose that, you're in deep trouble. We now have a very effective backup in Fresno as a result of that panel."

What has come about since that time is the formation of the EOC--the emergency operations center--and an EOC team. The team currently consists of 32 core members and is divided into two groups, a policy committee and an implementation committee.

The policy committee is headed by the company's general manager of the distribution business unit, who is also the chairman of the entire EOC team. "He's the guy responsible for the customers, and he's the guy with the operating experience," Shaffer explains. The committee consists of 16 officers representing a broad spectrum of the company. Its purpose: To assess the disaster and set a strategy.

The second group, the implementation committee, consists of 16 general office department heads and is under the direction of the vice president of gas and electrical technical services. This group's purpose is to implement the strategy set by the policy committee. "They are where the nuts and bolts fit in," Shaffer notes.

According to Shaffer, PG&E's EOC is a bit different than other companies' emergency centers. The EOC itself consists of two adjacent conference rooms in the company's general office complex and will seat about 200 people.

"We did not add a full-time emergency operations center. Some companies have done that. We elected not to," Shaffer explains, "because office space in San Francisco is at a premium." And, he adds, "Our power controllers operate 24 hours a day, our gas control operates 24 hours a day, and we've got round-the-clock phone service. We didn't feel the need for a full-time operations center.

"So what we did," continues Shaffer, "was work with our building people and devise a center that in about one hour can be converted into an emergency operation area--from just open space into a New York City."

ON JUNE 2 OF LAST YEAR, THE EOC team had its first drill. The scenario used for the drill was an earthquake on the Hayward Fault. Explains Shaffer, "There are three major faults that run through here. The San Andreas Fault, which is the one we just had the earthquake on, is the one that caused the 1906 quake. That's the one everybody hears about. It also runs through downtown Los Angeles and caused the big earthquake there about 10 to 15 years ago. It's potentially the most destructive statewide.

"The second, though, is the Hayward Fault, which runs right through the center of Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond and is predicted to be far more destructive. Seismologists think the Hayward Fault is capable of no more than a 7.0 on the Richter scale, but it runs right under virtually every hospital in the East Bay and under one of the major freeways, Highway 13." The third fault is the Calaveras, which runs from Union City east and would go through Contra Costa County.

"When we ran the exercise in June, we prepared for a Hayward Fault earthquake because seismologists say there is a 50 percent probability of an earthquake occurring on that fault during the next 25 years," says Shaffer. "In seismic terms, I'm told that is astronomical."

The company even brought in a seismologist, who showed slides to illustrate what would happen in the event of an earthquake along the Hayward Fault. "You don't think about things like this. You know it's going to be bad, but you don't know exactly what that means," says Shaffer.

After approximately four months of preparation, the drill kicked off at 8:15 on a Friday morning and involved around 100 people. The drill had four main purposes.

The first was to test whether the right mix of people had been assembled and whether any necessary functions had been omitted. The second was to test the equipment to see if it worked under sustained use. The third was to get people thinking about the issues they were going to have to deal with, issues they may have never thought about before. And the fourth was to get people from different departments used to working together and coordinating in a crisis situation.

The drill was designed to be as realistic as possible. "We had people calling in and posing the kinds of issues we thought would come up," says Shaffer. "We knew generally what the issues would be because the state of California had done a study of what the impact of the earthquake along the Hayward Fault would be," Shaffer points out. He adds that the chairman of the Seismic Safety Review Committee of the state of California, Lloyd Cluff, is also the manager of PG&E's Geosciences Department. Furthermore, Cluff wrote the study of the earthquake's impact. "Naturally, he was very knowledgeable about exactly what would happen to our operation system in the East Bay," says Shaffer.

Shaffer admits there was strong resistance in the beginning to even conducting the drill. "It was like dragging horses to water," he notes. According to Shaffer, everyone was skeptical about the effectiveness of the drill.

"Utilities are conservative organizations and change is sometimes difficult," he notes. "I think it was particularly difficult for our operating and electric people to embrace the concept of a centralized coordination point."

In the end, says Shaffer, "We just made up our minds we were going to do it." The strong backing the drill got from senior management certainly didn't hurt matters. "The general manager and vice chairman were extremely supportive," says Shaffer, noting that the vice chairman sat in on the entire drill.

When it came to making the drill as close to life as possible, the types of issues the EOC team had to deal with were not easy. Recounts Shaffer, "We had people calling the EOC saying, `I'm the division manager in Mission Trail and my employees are going home. I want them to stay, and they told me to kiss off. What do I do?' And, `I'm the chairman of the board of Chevron. I've got the Navy here telling me it has to fuel up its aircraft and my refinery is down. I've got the largest refinery in the western United States. When am I going to get power?'"

As if the EOC team didn't have enough going on, in the middle of the drill, a press conference was held. "We had a lot of fun," Shaffer smiles. "We had the mayor of Oakland call and give our vice president of governmental relations a bad time because the company wasn't taking care of his poor people in Oakland." But on a more serious note, says Shaffer, "It's things like that that happen."

People were being bombarded with issues and being forced to make decisions under pressure constantly. If Shaffer saw someone sitting around with nothing to do, he would start directing calls to that individual. About every hour, the EOC team would break and discuss what was happening.

To further reinforce the reality, a simulated radio broadcast was created. Shaffer admits he would also have liked to do a simulated TV broadcast, but there wasn't enough time.

Even so, the effect seemed to work. Only 30 minutes after the drill began, Shaffer says, "You could see about 90 percent of the people were locked into it like it was really happening. It was very gratifying."

The drill itself only lasted three hours. "It's just asking too much to lock up everybody for a couple of days," Shaffer points out. The remainder of the day was spent critiquing the event.

AND THEN IT HAPPENED. AT 5:04 PM, Tuesday, October 17, as people around the country--including Shaffer--were sitting down to watch Game Three of the World Series, news of the earthquake hit. Shaffer and his staff had submitted an action plan for the next drill just two hours before the earthquake struck!

When you have grown up and spent most of your adult life in northern California, as Shaffer has, earthquakes are a fact of life. But Shaffer concedes, "This was the worst one I've ever experienced. After about 10 seconds, it occurred to me this one was severe. I moved for a doorway to be protected. From where I was standing, I could watch my living room literally ripple like a wave."

Fifteen seconds later, it was all over. Shaffer was on the phone with the general office guard complex finding out the nature of the damage in the general office. "There was pandemonium," he says. "They were trying to assess damage, so I told them I would call back in 10 minutes when they had a better fix on it. I then called the power control dispatcher to find out the extent of damage to the system. That's when I discovered we had lost our electric generation from Monterey north. I knew then it was serious."

Several phone calls later, including some with the company president, the decision was made to activate the EOC. Thirty minutes later--at 6:15--the EOC was in full operation. By 7:00 pm, the alternate EOC, which was located in the East Bay in San Ramon, was activated in case the general office complex in San Francisco had to be evacuated for safety reasons.

"We always knew the freeways were subject to collapse and certainly subject to closure for inspection. We took that into consideration in our planning," says Shaffer. "Nobody ever predicted the Bay Bridge would collapse. That was a real shock."

Because the earthquake hit late in the day, many people were still at work. Assembling the EOC team was not the problem it could have been. "The advantage of having recently had the drill was that people who were assigned to the EOC knew where to go," Shaffer notes, "and they knew who on their staff to bring."

As for Shaffer, after spending about an hour making phone calls and evaluating the situation, he went to the backup EOC in San Ramon--which was only about a half mile from his home--to monitor operations and answer phone calls.

Shortly after he arrived, he sent one of his security representatives back into the city to stand by in the emergency operations center. "Later on, I conferred with the company vice chairman and our general manager," says Shaffer. "They were satisfied that everything was in place and operations were going smoothly. At that point, my role was just to support the EOC. I finally went to bed about 11:00 pm and got up at 4:00 am."

By 5:30 that morning, Shaffer was back at work. "It was an eerie feeling walking down Market Street the day after the quake," he recalls. "There was no electricity. And there was no traffic."

That day PG&E closed its general office complex and sent employees home so the company's civil engineers could inspect the buildings to make sure they were seismically safe. All but one building was reopened. The building that did not open had suffered massive flooding and partition damage. However, PG&E was only a tenant in that building; it did not own the building.

By Thursday, two days after the earthquake, most of the company's operations were up and running, including billing and revenue processing. And by Friday, Shaffer reports it was business as usual, although he notes many employees were afraid to come in so the company allowed them to take vacation those days.

"One of the lessons I've learned out of this whole thing is to completely disregard what all the emergency planning experts tell you. The bottom line is you have to keep it simple," Shaffer emphasizes.

"The fact is, people in a big organization like ours, particularly those who deal with gas and electricity everyday, know what to do. They've been doing it for 20 or 30 years; their management knows what to do. The best thing you can do," Shaffer stresses, "is let them do it. Give them the support they need, and help resolve the inevitable conflicts that come up for competing resources that are available."

When bringing so many different groups together and working under the extreme stress the EOC team did, friction between people would seem inevitable. However, despite the long hours, Shaffer says everyone pulled together. "The biggest problem I had," he jokes, "was making people go home. There were people who just didn't want to leave."

Shaffer and his staff also made another gratifying discovery. "People universally acknowledged we did better in the actual emergency than we did in the drill. I think it was easier in the earthquake because events are no longer occurring over three hours," reflects Shaffer. "Instead, they are occurring over a day and a half, so people have more time to make decisions."

Most of the lessons learned, however, came about not as the result of the earthquake but from the drill. "All of the emergency planning experts told us you can't have the EOC team inundated with phone calls. So we put together a phone bank and staffed it with clerical employees," says Shaffer. "They took all the messages that were called in and gave them to the decision makers.

"What we found," Shaffer explains, "is you can't have nontechnical people taking technical information, particularly in electric and gas. It just doesn't work. During the earthquake we let people call in directly, and it worked much better."

There were other surprises. One occurrence Shaffer hadn't counted on was letting the media in the EOC, but that became a necessity. "Frankly, I thought their presence would be disruptive. I thought it would be aggravating to the operating people to have to talk constantly to the media.

"What came back in the critiques from the operating people," Shaffer continues, "was they felt that was enormously valuable. It was valuable in that timely and accurate information got out. Yes, it was a distraction, but one they felt was well worth it."

In addition, Shaffer says, "There were not any security problems during this disaster, which was surprising." As for the types of security problems Shaffer expected, "We had anticipated looting. We had anticipated people breaking into the office for money. We anticipated crowds. People were fairly law-abiding. We just didn't have those kinds of problems."

The company is in the process of going through a system-wide critique and looking at what worked and didn't work. "What we are anticipating now from a planning perspective is that we will not have to worry about a major, devastating earthquake along the San Andreas Fault for the next 50 years because much of the pressure along the fault has been relieved. That's what we're being told, and that's what we're using as a planning premise.

"What it will do now, however, is shift pressure to the Hayward Fault and increase the likelihood of a major earthquake along that fault. We will be preparing for exactly that scenario."

Shaffer says that the company will be going back and looking at some of the seismic bracing in its substations and power plants. He plans to continue to do drill exercises, similar to the one in June, at least annually and possibly semianually.

"The next exercise we have will significantly expand the scope of the drill. This past drill was limited because people were going through it for the first time. The next one will involve four of our six regions, and one region will include all its divisions."

One of the aspects the first drill brought to light was that the policy committee of 16 people was larger than it needed to be. Shaffer estimates five or six people are all that are needed. In addition, the implementation group will be broken down into broad functional groups. As a result, by the next drill, says Shaffer, "We will have reconfigured the EOC team." But, he adds, "It's like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. It's constantly going to be changing."

In retrospect, Shaffer says he wishes he could have done the drill two years ago. "But," he says, "we didn't have the resources." Another major factor that prevented PG&E from doing the drill earlier was that the company went through a major reorganization, which was completed in 1988. "The reorganization of this company taxed staff resources enormously."

All things considered, Shaffer has much to be proud of. "There's always resistance to these things at first, but we've overcome that. People are already asking me when the next drill is. By the way," he adds, "it's April 27."

Karen K. Addis is assistant editor of Security Management and editor of Dynamics.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s response during Oct. 1989 earthquake
Author:Addis, Karen K.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Feb 1, 1990
Words:3337
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