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Facing the challenges of an uncertain environment

The Electrical Generating Systems Association (EGSA) is the world’s largest organization exclusively dedicated to On-Site Power Generation. The Association is comprised of over 550 companies—Manufacturers, Distributor/Dealers, Contractors/Integrators, Manufacturer’s Representatives, Consulting & Specifying Engineers, Service firms, End-Users and others—throughout the U.S. and around the world that make, sell, distribute and use On-Site Power generation technology and equipment, including generators, engines, switchgear, controls, voltage regulators, governors and much more.


This post was originally


written for EGSA's Powerline Magazine May 2012



The 2012 Spring EGSA Convention held in Austin, Texas had a unique theme, “Finding Opportunity in an Uncertain Environment.” When I was first asked to present on the topic of Disaster Preparedness, I was not overly excited at first, as I had a problem with the usage of the word “opportunity”. What would I speak about?


As a disaster preparedness trainer and consultant, storm chaser and disaster responder, what could I possibly speak on that would fall into the category of an “opportunity”? My life, as a whole, is surrounded by, and consists of, disasters; it has a theme of its own; “When Things Go Wrong.” There are not many opportunities in my world, unless you count the missed ones.

As I pondered what my contribution could be to such an important event, I began to think about the possibilities of a new and empowered EGSA that was ready to meet the challenges of climate change. I suddenly knew that not only was I going to have a message for the Austin audience, I knew it was a timely one. There is indeed an opportunity in an uncertain environment... an opportunity to rise above the accepted complacency that grips America’s populace... an opportunity to make changes NOW that will allow EGSA to stand in the face of what lies ahead.

Looking Back on a Memorable Year...


2011 was a memorable year for those in the emergency management and disaster response fields. We will always remember 2011 as the year that blizzards simultaneously beat down dozens of the states across the country. As the snow diminished, the floods came and we saw huge portions of several states inundated with historic floods that even today are still halting life and commerce. Texas, among other states, watched wildfires incinerate thousands upon thousands of acres while destroying homes, businesses and more.

Yes, a memorable year...

The year began almost as if on a mission of destruction with a tornado outbreak on New Years Eve of 2010. The early Spring brought the deadliest tornado outbreak since the 1950’s. It seemed as if the skies were alive with anger and deadly purpose. In August, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck Virginia and rocked the eastern seaboard, raising fear and questions nationwide...what could possibly happen next?

Nineteen tropical storms, the third highest total since records began being tracked, challenged the country and Irene became the first hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since 2008. Tropical Storm Lee would not be outdone either, with California Governor Jerry Brown declaring a state of emergency on Dec. 11,2011, as one of the most severe windstorms in memory took its toll on Los Angeles. Wind speeds approaching 80 mph had hit many populated areas and at nearby Mount Washington, wind speeds were clocked at 101 mph. It was a year of tempest and uncertainty, but 2011 held one more trick up its sleeve; it brought 2012.

By the end of this year, there will be the speculators that we have not seen since 1999 (the Y2K crowd) bringing the Mayan prophecies to the news on a daily basis, as we know that the world is predicted to come to an abrupt (and probably horrible) end in December. The number of believers will be small in comparison to the rest of the world population, but will they be that far off?


Looking back over 2011 and reviewing what we have already endured in 2012, perhaps there is something to it all? Could it be that the Mayans knew more than we give them credit for or did they really simply run out of calendar? The opportunity in an uncertain environment is the chance to broaden our scope of understanding and awareness! The opportunity is one that invites each of us to consider the “what if” scenarios of a different world.

Do I believe that the world will come to an end in December?

Absolutely not, but I am a firm believer that we all need to look at how we operate our corporations, manage our employees and prepare our families as the environment around us continues to change and to threaten our very existence.

There are lessons we need to learn...

There are lessons that we should be learning from 2011 that could quite possibly help EGSA and its members not only survive 2012 and beyond, but to globally meet the power-related challenges as the weather challenges intensify. First, disasters happen, and they happen without prejudice. For years, many of us have been considered “first responders” when disasters strike. It has been what has set us apart as various industries are incorporated into this group. If we are to survive a changing environment, we have to realize that disasters happen to all of us and that it is not a matter of “if” it will happen, it is a matter of “when.” What back-up systems have to be developed to make sure that we can still be the reliable resource? It is a scary thing to admit, but we now live in a time when the back-up system needs a back-up system!


Disasters happen without warning. While some of last year’shistoric disasters came after a well-detailed forecast, there was no way of forecasting the devastation we saw with each new disaster. While some may be warned, it is the effects that we cannot pre-determine and those who assume the minimum will inevitably experience the maximum, suffering the consequences of assumption.

2011 taught us to never underestimate the power and effectiveness of planning, training and drilling. Looking back on the aftermath of 2011, can we honestly state that we have trained at our facility for the worst? Can we say that our people are ready for the ultimate? Have we created exercises, held drills and practiced our response in the face of what could still be a year that rivals, if not surpasses, 2011? If we are to be there in the wake of disaster, we need to plan for the very worst. Perhaps we need to not plan for disasters at all, but rather, for catastrophes. According to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, we need to stop planning for what we can do; we need to “scale-up” by planning for low-probability, but high-impact disasters. Obviously, planning for a 2-day power outage and 3-day disruption of delivery will not fare well in a widespread disaster like a New Madrid earthquake that disrupts the entire Midwest for months or a northeast blizzard that lasts for two weeks.


The Titanic


If you watch television at all, you have certainly been aware that the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s plunge into the icy depths of the Atlantic was this year. We all know the story, if not from history books, from the movie. The most magnificent ship ever constructed struck an iceberg with no warning and the entire vessel vanished in less than three hours. While ships sink every day, what made this tragedy so historicwas that the Titanic was built to last; it was unsinkable according to its overly confident engineers. While the loss of life was horribly unavoidable, there is one fact that feels lost in translation with the stories told; the fact that many could have been saved had the disaster plans been “scaled up” to include the possibility that the hull might be breached. It has been suggested that if the crew had purposely flooded the ship’s aft compartments using the ship’s fire extinguisher system, the boat would have stayed afloat long enough (a few more hours) until rescue ships arrived.

Why wasn’t this done? The assumption that the forward compartments could NEVER be breached eliminated any need for a plan to balance the ship!

These are not freak happenings...

Another lesson we learned was to stop saying these are freak storms and events. They are not. Remember, Katrina was referred to as a fluke. So was the Indianapolis stage collapse. Had these tragedies been freak occurrences, we would not still be reeling from the sting of Ike or the sadness of the St. Louis tent tragedy that just occurred in April. If states that thought they were immune were struck in 2011, if companies that thought they were ready were caught unaware in 2011, then what of 2012? Do we dare stand in confidence on the procedures and training and plans we have presently in place or is it time to take advantage of today...for now we are being given the opportunity to ready ourselves.


The trend is not just continuing; it is expanding. While the recent hurricane forecast for 2012 looks to a milder-than-a normal year, the disclaimer that accompanies this forecast states that development of El Nino could change everything. In January of 2011, the United States experienced slightly less than two dozen tornadoes. In the month of January of 2012, we suffered more than seven dozen.

Be willing to be uncomfortable...

We need to be alright with being uncomfortable. If we areto be the source of light and power in the face of this uncertain environment, we need to be willing to admit that right now, we are not as ready as we need to be. According to multiple experts, including Jack Hayes of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2011 is just a precursor of things to come. We will never be ready for what lies around the corner if we are not willing to admit TODAY that we need to rethink how we operate, how we train, how we plan and how we take care of our human resources (employees).

So how do we start to take advantage of opportunity? We have the opportunity to use EGSA the way it was intended...network and share best practices! Across North America, EGSA has Members that experienced Mother Nature’s wrath in a manner unlike anything we have ever seen. It is time to network, to borrow, to glean insight from. How did these disasters affect the way that they do business? How did they maintain continuity? Even the unsuccessful stories hold wisdom and truth; what would they have done differently? What plans failed and why? All of these components become a large part of the new plan, for surely, if it happened to them, your turn is possibly around the corner.

Protecting our human infrastructure

What of the people? Whether you are a manufacturer, distributor dealer, engineer or contractor, you are nothing without people. In 2011 more than 1,100 people died in weather events and more than 8,000 were injured. The year included at least 14 individual events that caused economic damage in excess of $1 Billion or more, each with a collective price tag of over $55 Billion in damages during an already unstable economic time. Your employees, the backbone of your economy, suffered over 90 federally declared disasters.


What are we doing to make sure that we retain these employees in the wake of a disaster? While I am referring somewhat to economic stability, let’s broaden our scope of focus or “scale up” this thought process, to include what can be done to preserve their very lives?


Evacuated employees that never return could slow or even halt processes you need to continue operations. Dead employees don’t return either. In a recent visit to a refinery, I asked the question, “How well protected are your employees, so you know you won’t lose continuity of operations?” The answer was as I expected, all precautions had been taken to protect and preserve the lives of those employees at the plant in the event of a disaster, but nothing had ever been done to educate the employees or their families as to how to survive if disaster struck while they were home. Why is this my responsibility, you ask?


An employee existing in an unprepared home with an unprepared family will not return to work for several days, if not weeks, in the wake of a disaster; the time you need them the most. Small investments now, “scaling up” plans and educational efforts will pay out great dividends in the future.

So, now what?

I think we can agree that we live in an uncertain environment.So now what? Turn the page? There are other articles and work to be done once you set this issue down. This might be a viable option for you, but it wouldn’t be a wise one. I have spent a lifetime walking the streets of communities where it couldn’t happen...looking out over piles of what were once dreams and visions. I have spent a lifetime staring into the real- time version of what some think of as reality television, orchestrated by ratings-hungry producers. I have sat with heads of state and corporate executives that never saw it coming. This uncertain environment is real and the consequences of not meeting its challenges “head on” are even more real. Embrace the idea that you do not have a plan that meets what the rest of what 2012 has in store. Tear apart your plans and procedures. Analyze your shipping and fulfillment, your storage, your manufacturing, your materials. Will it all hold up?

Look past the time clock. Prepared employees are employees that will be there when you need to be standing. To invest in our human infrastructure is to invest in our very existence and survival. Network to be taught...reach out to those that have experienced “being the victim.” Seek them out, partner, ask questions and apply their advice.

Share what you discover. One strength in EGSA lies in the collaborative whole, not the strength of one Member. Your discoveries can enlighten, strengthen and save lives. Share them!

Foster partnerships. Partnerships need not only be forged for the maximum return on investment. The changes and threats that loom on the horizon call for partnerships that are not merely tactical but strategic and almost brotherly. If one fails, the rest fall shortly after.

Don’t discount the warnings...

As this article prepares to go to press and I prepare to head back out onto the road to meet yet another forecasted outbreak, take this thought with you. Those who know, who live and breathe natural disasters are worried. In the last month alone, forecasts from the National Weather Service and the Storm Prediction Center have been incorporating new language; words like “un-survivable”, “deadly”, and “catastrophic”.

Concerns also lie in fields far beyond the weather. Where are the present concerns that could affect EGSA, its Members and its customers? Terrorism... Earthquakes... Nuclear... Hazardous Materials incidents... Hurricanes... Tsunamis... Pandemics... Cyber failures... Floods... Wildfires... Blizzards.

Take heed to the warnings.

Don’t be green. April of this year brought with it “Green Week”, a portion of the month set aside to discuss and celebrate all things environmentally friendly. Of course, as a speaker in demand for presentations and keynotes on climate change, I was booked solid. Two days into the week I joked with my staff that I was the only speaker in the country advising people to NOT be green. Here’s what I mean with the message...


Scientific fact or a wives tale, I’m not certain, but there is an old saying, “Put a frog in boiling water and he will jump right out, but put a frog in cold water and slowly heat the water to a boil, and the frog will stay in the pot until his death.”

I have not tried this with a frog, but over the course of mycareer I have watched it happen with Americans. This uncertain environment has been changing for decades, but we have chosen to stay aloof, paying little attention as the water around us got warmer. Now, the water of our surroundings is starting to boil and we still sit in the pot like little green frogs.

It is time to jump.

Those caught in a changing environment need us...

While we operate in a world of amazing machinery and out- standing technology (something EGSA should very proud of), our service is still for the people. Pat Santos, Deputy Director of Louisiana’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said this past January in New Orleans that improving response and preparedness capabilities is for one purpose only: people.

Our services, our products and our expertise need to be there when everything else falls apart. In order to accomplish this, we need to make sure we are here and we are prepared. The opportunity to learn is knocking at the door, are you listening?

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