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Thunderbolt Exercises Helped Florida React During Blackout

Years of communication paid off during 2008 blackout.

by Jim Reilly / January 14, 2009
Courtesy of Jim Reilly

The cascading power outages that took place in Florida on Feb. 26, 2008 -- the Florida Blackout -- resulted in power losses from Miami to Daytona to Tampa. As the investigation continued into how an apparently isolated event produced such wide-scale outages, this much is clear: Once the outages took place, the performance of the response systems -- both electric reliability coordination and emergency management -- was admirable. The outages were extensive throughout the state, so extensive that many thought that what had occurred was similar to the New York blackout of August 2003.

However, a genuine systemwide blackout did not take place in Florida, due to the smooth functioning of the protection systems that had been set up to deal with this type of emergency. Separation from the bulk transmission system -- the regional or national grid -- could have caused a loss of power lasting for several days. This was prevented, and power was restored within a matter of hours. Reliability coordination in the electric sector and emergency management in the public sector were on top of the situation all the way.

Thunderbolt is the name for the "no notice" quick reaction drills that Craig Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, holds six times a year. The Florida Blackout was precisely the kind of no-notice event that these drills were designed for. On Feb. 26, 2008, the Florida Division of Emergency Management went into action at the flick of the proverbial switch.

The emergency began at 1:08 p.m. when a three-phase fault occurred at the Flagami substation, across the street from Florida Power and Light Co. (FPL) headquarters. The fault triggered the shutdown of the Turkey Point nuclear power plant.


Cascading Outages and Blackouts

From an electric industry point of view, the Florida Blackout was essentially an under-frequency load-shedding event. Indeed, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission describes it as a "load loss event." Some distinctions between power outages and blackouts might be helpful.

Under certain conditions, such those that developed at Turkey Point, a network component shutdown can lead to cascading outages in larger sections of the network. Sections to be shut down may range from a building, to a block, to an entire city, to the entire regional electrical grid. A power outage takes the form of a blackout where power is lost completely. The word "blackout" is a colloquial term. There are many types of blackouts: localized, partial, full system with outside help, full system without outside help.

In the case of the Florida Blackout, the outage was limited to particular cities, and the integrity of the bulk electric system -- the electrical generation resources, transmission lines, interconnections with neighboring systems, and associated equipment -- was preserved. In other words, the grid remained intact. This was the major factor that made rapid power system restoration possible.


Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center

Jaime Hernandez, a spokesman for Miami-Dade County Department of Emergency Management, said that "Miami-Dade partially activated its emergency operations center shortly before 2 p.m., requiring all essential personnel to report to the Doral office."

Immediately the EOC collected information on impact from its roster of contacts. A conference call was held with hospitals and nursing homes, asking about needs. Calls started pouring in from the 911, mostly on traffic situations. There was good situational awareness of the impact of the outage very soon after the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated.

Director C. Douglass Bass spoke with FPL management. Frank Reddish, an engineer with Miami-Dade Emergency Management, maintained close contact with technical staff at FPL throughout the blackout and received good cooperation. Some information was probably not known to FPL as soon as they would have liked as well. Although assessment of the situation is the first step before restoration starts, usually the cause is isolated and worked around.

Communications with state emergency management was facilitated by Al Howe, liaison for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. He was careful that established lines of communication were respected, expressing sensitivity: "If you don't follow the established lines of communications, you are setting yourself up for failure."

At the outset there was no real credible information as to what was really going on. At first, emergency management thought that it was an isolated event, but later understood that it was a large-scale power outage. Internally emergency managers were trying to figure out what had happened.

In the beginning, there were concerns about the attention that the news media was paying to the nuclear power plant as the cause of the outage. Television reports showed video from cameras in helicopters that were pointed toward Turkey Point.

Miami-Dade emergency managers were "very careful about characterizing the event," in the words of Jaime Hernandez. "With no indication that anything was going on other than a power outage, there was no reason say anything to the contrary," he said. The attitude was that unless they were informed otherwise, the blackout was considered an accident, not terrorism. This was prudent, calming and reassuring.

In public announcements and media briefings, Hernandez emphasized that it was "an inconvenience, not an emergency." This theme was repeated one hour after the event in a press conference by Mayor Carlos Alvarez. "[There was] absolutely no indication or evidence that there was any foul play in what occurred," he said. He added that there was "massive inconvenience because of traffic congestion ... can't describe it as emergency because it was not."

By 3:00 p.m., 92 percent of the traffic lights were functioning as power was restored to one intersection and neighborhood at a time, though far more quickly than after Hurricane Wilma.

One of the challenges was communicating with FPL early on. The Miami-Dade EOC only learned about a fire/accident at the Flagami substation between 4:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.. By then, most of the power had been restored. The event was effectively over, and the lights were starting to come on.

Emergency managers were relieved when they were informed by FPL that the outage was ending during daylight hours.

A week later, they learned that the cause of the event was human error by a worker at the substation.


State Emergency Operations Center

The Florida Division of Emergency Management first heard of event in a call from a citizen in Miami around 1:30 (approximately 20 minutes after the outage started).

The State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) was immediately activated, and a Level 1 emergency was declared. Danny Kilcollins, planning manager for critical infrastructure, established immediate contact with Ed Mills of the Florida Public Service Commission, and called in emergency support function (ESF) #12. It's one of 18 ESFs developed by FEMA; in this case, ESF #12 deals with energy. The Critical Infrastructure Section worked in parallel with ESF #12 throughout the event. They began assessing the situation and searching for its causes before even taking their positions at the SEOC.

The lines of communications were immediately opened with emergency operations centers in Miami-Dade, other affected counties and Tallahassee were activated. No one knew how significant the event was at the outset.

A giant electronic map was created at the SEOC in Tallahassee, showing outages in all of south Florida as well as counties in central Florida and the Tampa Bay area shaded in red -- the indication of real trouble. The outages were tracked on a per-county basis. The impact was measured in terms of customers -- eventually 584,000. Since utilities speak in terms of customers, measuring individuals affected can be misleading. Data on individuals can be added on a per-county basis after information is collected from the utilities.

Gov. Charlie Crist echoed the "inconvenience" theme of the mayor in his press conference later in the afternoon.

Preparedness and Teamwork Pay Off

The SEOC was ready for requests for additional resources, if needed. One such resource was the National Guard who would be needed to help ensure the safety of Floridians should the outages continue into the night. An after-dark outage is far more problematic: Dark roads are infinitely more dangerous, looting becomes a concern and panic is harder to contain. Sunset on Feb. 26 was at 6:21 p.m., only five hours from the cascading outages. As soon as the extent of the outages was known, Fugate began thinking the National Guard might have to be called in. "We stood the team up," he said. "The real question is whether power was going to go back on before dark."

Crist consulted with Florida National Guard Maj. Gen. Douglas Burnett about using troops in case it appeared there would be significant outages overnight, but ruled out troop use when power was restored for most customers by nightfall.

As of 4:30 p.m., power had been restored to most areas, and the blackout was effectively over. There were outages in scattered areas, but the blackout was essentially over.


All-Hazards Approach

Emergency management in Florida enjoys an outstanding reputation for its performance during hurricanes and other natural disasters. It also excels at responding to other natural disasters, such as tornadoes, floods, fires, and even severe freezing. Less well known is the emphasis on all-hazards in Florida. A blackout is a technological or man-made disaster. It is an emergency due to the electric system. The response to the Florida Blackout proves that the same principles and well practiced procedures -- and relationships -- work during "no notice" events just as well as they do in response to hurricanes with warnings and notice of a few days.

"Emergency management has to be prepared for no-notice, rapid-onset events, not just those that can be seen on a weather channel approaching the state in advance," said David Halstead, bureau chief of the Bureau of Response in the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

This highlights the importance of Thunderbolt exercises, which are particularly helpful for practicing responses to all-hazard events. Kilcollins explained that Thunderbolts are no-notice, rapid-onset emergency management drills to improve the State Emergency Response Team's ability to respond to multi-hazard emergencies, "whether small-scale and localized or large-scale, affecting much of Florida or the region."

The Florida blackouts came as quickly as a Thunderbolt. The reliability coordinator for the grid in Florida responded immediately, and the emergency management team came online without hesitation. This Thunderbolt was for real. All the players should receive very high marks.


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