By Teresa Young
SAN FRANCISCO — First responders don’t always wear uniforms. Sometimes they don colorful vests and show up in the least conspicuous places, like at a work station in an office building.
That’s exactly what hundreds of employees did last week (Aug. 8-9) for PG&E’s annual companywide earthquake exercise in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in San Francisco and several emergency centers in its service area, including the Gas Emergency Center in the East Bay. The colored vests represent a functional role to help others easily identify them in an emergency operations center.
About 400 employees were activated for the two-day earthquake exercise to respond to a hypothetical, catastrophic 7.9 magnitude earthquake scenario that hit the San Andreas Fault at 6:35 a.m. with a subsequent 7.2 aftershock at 11:30 a.m. There were 35 to 65 seconds of strong ground shaking from the initial quake, crippling gas and electric service from Humboldt through the San Francisco Bay Area and south to Hollister with major highway, bridge and airport closures, hundreds of fires and building collapses.
In the scenario, there were thousands of fatalities and tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes.
“It’s really important for PG&E to hold these drills and exercises to practice our responses to major emergencies such as earthquakes, wildfires and storms,” said Gregg Lemler, vice president of Electric Transmission operations, who served as the incident commander during the exercise. “Exercises give us the opportunity to test the processes and systems we have in place for emergency response to make sure they work according to our plans.”
The earthquake exercise also provided an opportunity to test coordination and communication across the company, identify potential gaps and improvements and find areas of opportunity. A number of seasoned staff in gas, electric and other lines of business participated alongside newer employees. This allowed PG&E to educate and train employees for emergency response roles across the company.
“This is an exercise today, but this type of scenario could be real-world within five minutes,” said Evermary Hickey, PG&E director of preparedness and response support and deputy incident commander during the exercise.
“We want to be ready at a moment’s notice to respond to our communities and customers, and be there for them at that moment’s notice,” she added.
Representatives from various agencies were also invited to observe the exercise and attend the earthquake technology showcase at PG&E’s San Francisco headquarters on Aug. 8 and tour the Distribution Control Center in Concord on Aug. 9.
Some of these agencies include representatives from the CPUC, American Red Cross, CAISO, Cal OES, FEMA, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Coast Guard, San Francisco Department of Emergency Management as well as the city’s fire and police departments. Besides getting a look inside the EOC, they saw displays of new technologies ranging from predictive tools from meteorology to gas-leak detection.
Although the participants wore their colored vests during the two-day exercise, hundreds of employees respond to a number of emergency events in the field and emergency operations centers throughout the year. Whether they wear a colored or safety vest, go into the field or work from one of the PG&E emergency centers, PG&E strives to safely respond to the communities it serves day in and day out.
The exercise is just one of many ways PG&E continues to prepare for real-life emergencies and major events, such as storms and wildfires. Drills and ongoing training throughout the year have proven effective as the Edison Electric Institute recognized PG&E for its restoration efforts in response to the series of winter storms earlier this year.
“It is paramount to go through these exercises to be prepared from a safety perspective,” said Terry Towne, a senior business operations specialist in electric transmission and distribution safety and a member of the contractor management group for the exercise. “In emergencies, so many scenarios can happen, from downed buildings to downed wires and gas leaks, or freeways that have collapsed, or to bridges that have been closed for inspections. PG&E is considered a first responder in these types of incidents. Without our assistance, fire departments, police, ambulances, and search and rescue personnel aren’t able to do what they do unless we go in first and make it safe for them.”
PG&E urges customers to also be safe and prepared for any major disaster. Customers should update and replenish their emergency preparedness kits with enough supplies on hand to be self-sufficient for at least three days, and preferably up to one week. Practice personal emergency plans to ensure all members of their household know what to do in the event of an emergency — especially since everyone may not be together. Get additional preparedness resources from the American Red Cross and the California Office of Emergency Services.
Email Currents at Currents@pge.com.