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PA PUC Engages in Resilience Building Exercises

Accidents happen. However, there are some accidents that can reap much more havoc than others. This is especially true in the natural gas industry. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) is taking steps to ensure that, if and when disaster strikes, they, other regulators, and the industry are best prepared to address the issue, mitigate damages, and restore service to those affected.

Dubbed “Operation Blue Flame”, the PUC preparatory exercise simulated an emergency-related natural gas outage in the Commonwealth. This is the second iteration of the operation, following the inaugural test in 2018. The effort was designed to stress-test the existing agencies, industry, and infrastructure, to find weak links and opportunities within the systems. The PUC worked in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) to facilitate the discussion-based exercise.

In an effort to fully stress these systems, the scenario was designed to replicate a large outage during the freezing temperatures of the winter months. As the test is about the processes of restoring service, it is ultimately about gauging the response and collaboration of the organizations and agencies in response. The purpose, according to PUC press secretary Nils Hagen-Frederiksen was to “provide all state agencies with a rudimentary background on gas company emergency operations and to begin to prepare them for the cascading societal impacts they would need to respond to… during a real-world natural gas outage”. In its essence, the effort was made to build a more resilient system. But what is resilience?

Resilience studies related to government and public administration have grown in the world of academia and in practice in the past decade. The idea aims to analyze existing systems within a governmental agency, or agencies, to identify issues and opportunities to make the system better equipped to handle shocks or stressors. That is, how well the prepared systems in place react to unforeseen disruption, and how quickly the system can reach baseline status.

This year’s exercise furthered the findings of 2018’s test, uncovering other pieces of the system that would aid in the mitigation of societal effects of such an outage. These include the furthering of emergency planning and collaboration by both the state and industry, and development of gas restoration procedures that would prioritize “critical customers”. Findings from 2019 include the need for the inclusion of the region’s healthcare system in emergency management discussions, improving existing critical infrastructure, and the continuation of education for stakeholders who would be affected by a major outage scenario.

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