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Drill's unusual timing had South Jersey Gas braced for fast response

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In the days before Hurricane Sandy, South Jersey Gas was preparing for a major hurricane — and it had nothing to do with Sandy.

South Jersey Gas had scheduled its annual emergency preparedness drill for Oct. 26 — the Friday before the storm. The company uses an outside consulting firm to draw up a disaster scenario, which is then sprung on the company during the training period each year, setting in motion a mock disaster response drill. This year's "fictional" scenario: A massive hurricane.

"We were going through mock-ups, so by the time Sunday came and we were anticipating the (real) storm hitting … we went from our drill mode right into actual incident command," said Paul Zuccarino, vice president of distribution operations for the utility.

Incident command protocols involve positioning staffers at various emergency management offices, opening up a "war room" and preparing to deploy work crews as soon as it was safe to do so.

Craig Lynch, vice president of energy delivery at New Jersey Natural Gas, said another pre-storm task was securing extra workers through mutual aid agreements with other utilities. While such arrangements are standard protocol for electric utilities, Lynch said it hasn't historically been typical for gas utilities.

"It's a new phenomenon," he said. "We had been working in the gas industry on frameworks for mutual aid. This is the first time in the history of our industry that we actually executed it."

That framework was organized by the Northeast Gas Association, a regional industry trade group. Ahead of Sandy, New Jersey Natural Gas and other utilities put out the call for help, eventually lining up more than 300 additional workers from as far away as Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana.

Lynch said the system generally worked well in its debut, but he said there were challenges, such as figuring out how to assign skill-specific tasks to the workers, and how to feed and house them after the Shore was evacuated. The latter was a problem because the few hotels that remained open were largely occupied with out-of-state electric workers.

"So the logistics of finding hotel rooms, getting them food and gasoline was becoming a problem," Lynch said. "So we learned in the future to have better protocols."

South Jersey Gas, it turned out, didn't need outside help. The storm turned northward, so the worst damage was in NJNG's territory. Thus with its entire team already mobilized, South Jersey offered to send its crews north.

"After the main part of the storm was over, we started to work with Northeast Gas Association and some of the other associations, and actually offer mutual aid assistance," Zuccarino said.

Among the companies that helped New Jersey Natural Gas was Entergy New Orleans, a crew that brought the expertise they learned from Hurricane Katrina.

Entergy crews have spent the past eight years speaking about their experience and sharing their lessons learned with other utilities. At a recent conference of the Southern Gas Association, Entergy officials said the mantle of disaster expert had now passed to New Jersey Natural Gas, according to Kathy Ellis, NJNG's chief operating officer: "The Entergy guys came up to us and shook our hands and said, 'You're the experts now.' "

E-mail to: jaredk@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @jaredkaltwasser

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