What’s the worst that could happen?

Severe storms take thousands of OPPD customers off the grid. Lightning and flooding cause an evacuation of OPPD’s headquarters. A vault fire causes extensive damage to the downtown network. Over the course of less than a day, OPPD employees faced all these challenges and more.

But it was only a drill.

Carl Olsen briefs storm drill participants first thing Wednesday morning, Nov. 4, 2015.

Carl Olsen briefs storm drill participants first thing Wednesday morning, Nov. 4, 2015.

OPPD holds a storm drill every year, and it has been a mainstay in the utility’s preparedness since the 1997 October snow storm that brought down tree limbs and power lines across the city. That storm left customers without power for more than a week and prompted major improvements to the utility’s communication about and response to large-scale outages.

By holding these annual practice sessions, employees can identify strengths and weaknesses and make improvements where necessary. The latest storm drill, held over several hours last week, pulled together more than 80 employees from across the utility. They practiced their respective roles as realistically as possible to prepare for actual widespread outages.

“The drill provided many opportunities for learning,” said John Mohler, manager of OPPD’s Syracuse Service Center. Mohler served as an organizer and controller for the latest drill. “It fostered a culture of continual improvement.”

The imaginary disaster scenario started a day before the actual drill, with a warning that severe weather, including tornadoes, would be moving into eastern Nebraska. And the drill was on.

Crews began safety and equipment checks, ensured vehicles were gassed up and ready to go, and arranged additional personnel to be on standby, ready to report to work, if needed. All tasks that happen when actual severe storms are forecast.

The “storm” struck in the early morning hours, and by 6 a.m., had theoretically knocked out power to 132,000 customers.

Corporate Marketing and Communications members Paula Lukowski, left, Kim Wear and Althea McMickell discuss social media response tactics during the storm drill. 11/4/15

Corporate Marketing and Communications members Paula Lukowski, left, Kim Wear and Althea McMickell discuss social media response tactics during the storm drill. 11/4/15

Additional crews were “called in,” including troubleshooters to find specific issues causing outages and forestry teams to clear tree limbs and debris. Human Resources addressed a variety of employee and contractor needs, while communications personnel crafted internal messages, stories and updates for a drill site version of the Storm & Outage Center, as well as media advisories and news releases.

Meanwhile, “weather threats” continued. Crews were reminded of the need to put their safety and the safety of customers first and to prepare to find shelter. Simulated flooding and lightning caused mock evacuations of Energy Plaza and OPPD’s Blair Service Center. Plans for relocating workers were discussed.

For this mock disaster, the estimated time it would take to restore all customers was eight days, with most of the repairs being scattered and tedious, including many door-to-door efforts to bring customers back one at a time.

It truly was a worst-case scenario type of event.

“The drill gave everyone involved a chance to review their responsibilities and improve on the processes that have been developed,” Mohler said. “This will better equip the district to respond to large-scale damages to safely restore service to our customer-owners in a timely manner.”

By the end of the drill, these challenges were met and improvements were noted for the next drill.

Or the next time a real event strikes.

Andrew Roger

About Andrew Roger

Andrew Roger joined OPPD as a digital media coordinator in 2013. With camera in hand, Andrew is out in field capturing stories and moments of our hard-working employees.

Jodi Baker

About Jodi Baker

Jodi Baker writes stories and shoots videos for The Wire. Jodi was a television news reporter before she came to work for OPPD as a media specialist in 2013. She's married with two children (a boy and a girl) and an allergy-ridden little Cairn Terrier.

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