Preparing, Responding and Recovering from a Natural Disaster

Demolition control supervisor and foreman discussing on demolish building.

It can happen in the blink of an eye and without warning; one minute our lives are running smoothly; the next minute we’re in complete chaos as we look at the task that looms ahead of us — recovering from a natural disaster. Electrical contractors are often at the forefront of this recovery effort; they know, the sooner the electrical infrastructure is restored, the sooner we can all get back to our day-to-day schedules. Most areas have no shortage of electrical contractors willing to jump in and help pick up the pieces after disaster strikes. But what we sometimes fail to realize is, even before a tragedy strikes, there are many things that can, and should, be done that can help ease the recovery effort.

As electrical contractors, our clients rely on us to understand the lay of the land and to know the ins and outs of their electrical system. It’s a lot of responsibility on our shoulders, but it is the reason why people hire a contractor in the first place. We know how to get the job done safely, we understand the importance of proper installation and maintenance, and we know the role each plays with regards to electrical safety in the workplace.

What we must capitalize on, however, is the opportunity to educate our customers and point them to resources that they can use to provide this level of safety. One such piece of information includes NFPA 70B: Recommended Practice for Electrical Equipment Maintenance, which is an important part of the electrical safety ecosystem but is often overlooked by electrical contractors as a recommendation for clients after the building is turned over to the owner.

Natural disasters often strike with little or no warning and the condition of equipment maintenance often plays into how quickly a system can recover from such an event. NFPA 70B has recommendations for developing an electrical preventive maintenance program to help ensure that electrical equipment stands the test of time and might even help it to weather a storm by maintaining the original installations’ condition of the equipment. In addition to recommending the development of a preventive maintenance program, NFPA 70B also
contains a chapter that is dedicated to preparing the electrical system to be resilient in the wake of disaster.

Chapter 32 of NFPA 70B is titled, “Electrical Disaster Recovery” and is aimed at setting up a sequence of events for when a building’s electrical system is faced with a natural or man made disaster. This process is intended to minimize the damage to the system from the event and also to expedite the process of recovery and minimize down time. As with most aspects of electrical safety, it all starts with a plan for what to do leading up to and following the event
will help prepare a facility for the worst.

Of course, the plan is going to vary based on the type of event that causes damage to the system. The recovery from a flood is very different than recovering from the effects of an earthquake, for instance. NFPA 70B recommends determining which category of event a facility is likely to be exposed to. This helps to better prepare for the kinds of disasters a facility might encounter. For example, a building in California will likely need to be prepared for a structural damage event like an earthquake and a fire damage event. Part of any recovery plan is determining the back-up power system for fueling recovery efforts. In the case of California, earthquakes tend to do a number on natural gas lines and for that reason the natural gas infrastructure includes valves to prevent gas leaks that could create a greater hazard after the initial event. Using a natural gas-fired generator or a fuel cell as the temporary power system would be inconsistent with the area’s disaster category. In this case, the fuel supply might not be reliable enough to be effective during the recovery effort.

Another important part of the recovery plan for a building owner to consider is taking stock of the equipment within the building. Knowing and understanding the limitations of the equipment helps to shape the preparation/recovery plan. Determining and documenting whether equipment is going to need replacing (based on the type of damage) or whether it can be reconditioned, is essential. There are also many new revisions to the National Electrical Code® (NEC®) that spell out what equipment can or cannot be reconditioned. Documenting what the recovery plan is for each piece of equipment based on each type of disaster event they might be exposed to in that region is key to this process.

Section 32.2.6.2 of NFPA 70B gives some examples of how a facility might choose to categorize the priority of the recovery or repair efforts. Each facility is going to be different but the concept is similar. Start by repairing systems that are most critical to building operation, such as the supply system. Next priority might be the system for distributing power throughout the building. This prioritization could then trickle on down through the rest of the equipment within the building giving the recovery team an idea of where to start and where to go next based on the most critical equipment being brought online first, and so on.

Lastly, Chapter 32 of NFPA 70B stresses the importance of documenting everything about how the equipment was installed, including taking pictures of how certain equipment was configured, and labeling wires so that when it’s being re-installed it can all be connected just the same as it was. This might include site sketches, one-line diagrams, and equipment schedules. When paired with a list of what can be repaired versus what must be replaced and the list of priorities for recovery, this documentation becomes an important tool in helping our customers hit the ground running in the wake of disaster and minimize the time that the facility is down.

As a contractor, we have knowledge that needs to be passed on to building owners as the facility changes hands. Even if we are not the first contractor on site, we are often viewed by the client as the expert. Sharing valuable information can help lessen the pain in an unfortunate event, like a natural disaster. It can also help ensure that when they need to determine who gets hired in the recovery process, building owners remember who spent the time walking through the needed steps to prepare and plan ahead for a possible disaster.

Ultimately, when relationships are built on trust it can be a powerful way to secure important work. Contractors are on the front lines of protecting the world from electrical hazards, and educating those we interact with about their system is a key component of how we provide this protection. When all the pieces come together, we can make the world a safer place.

For additional information, download NFPA’s free “Natural Disaster Electrical Equipment Checklist,” which builds off of recommendations in Chapter 32 of the 2019 edition of NFPA 70B.

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Derek Vigstol is Senior Electrical Content Specialist with the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Massachusetts.

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