A record 1 million-plus Georgia Power customers were left without power as Tropical Storm Irma barreled through in September 2017.
Within four days of the storm coming through the state, power was restored to more than 95 percent of places left without electricity. The preparation for Irma began days in advance as Georgia Power’s storm center staff created multiple plans based on the ever-changing path and strength of Irma.
That staff would coordinate with other Georgia Power employees, including those working in the company’s social media center responding directly to the public and a mobile unit that would set up at base camps for utility workers throughout the state.
That level of coordination within the company wasn’t always the case, but a realization came after an ice storm hit the Atlanta area in the 1970s.
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“We realized that the separate areas were operating in silos,” storm center operations manager David Maske said. “If you had all the resources you needed and some, you just kept on working because really you were focusing on what you were doing. You weren’t focused on your neighbors. You had too much going on in your yard.”
It’s a different mentality now. This week, the Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency team along with other local leaders received an up-close look at how Georgia Power prepares for disasters during a visit to the corporate headquarters in Atlanta.
The storm command center is made up of a boardroom with large screen TVs and is flanked by a larger room with multiple computers and TV monitors. On a typical day only two people are part of the command staff, but that number grows depending on the severity of the disaster, Maske said.
When the next ice or tropical storm hits, employees from various Georgia Power departments will meet in the center to keep each other abreast of what’s happening. There is also frequent communication with local governments as their emergency response and public works crews continue their cleanup efforts.
“I look at it from a 10,000 foot view,” Maske said. “I look at it holistically from an entire system. Who needs what, when do they need it, why do they need it. We’re trying to make sure all of our areas have all the resources they need to safely, efficiently and as quick as possible get their lights back on.”
The storm command center that goes “into the field” normally sits in a warehouse near Georgia Power’s headquarters until it’s needed.
The mobile storm command center — equipped with satellite technology — is deployed to staging areas across the state when a disaster strikes. It becomes a portable hub where crews gather and get the resources needed in the aftermath of a storm, said Greg Detwiler, storm center logistics manager.
Depending on the breadth of the disaster, utility crews from other states may come to Georgia to help out.
“We’ll typically move these units to the areas where we have large base camps and these base camps will house typically 500 to 1,000 workers,” Detwiler said. “We actually had in Irma one camp that had 2,300 south of Savannah. We’re always trying to locate these as close as we can to where the restoration efforts are taking place.”
While the storm centers coordinate with crews clearing downed power lines, fixing transformers and making other repairs, the social media center monitors and responds to what people post on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms.
“From Hurricane Irma forward we’ve started to see a shift,” social media specialist Glen Brangers said. “Early on in the days of customer care you couldn’t get through to report an outage in a major storm. With Hurricane Irma we actually had customer service reps that were waiting on a call for the first time ever.
“We started looking at what was happening in the social media center. ... We contribute that wait time to actually mass communications that social media afforded us,” Brangers said.