Translate this website:

An Exercise in Preparedness: NIPCO Operations During a Pandemic

  • Posted: 04.28.2020
Photo of storm clouds. Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).
Photo: NOAA

Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative Staff had no sooner placed the final touches on its updated Emergency Response and Business Continuity Plan (ERP) before it was tapped as a blueprint for operations by the generation and transmission cooperative. All that was left to do was to conduct its annual preparedness drill in April, called a "tabletop exercise".

The purpose of conducting regular tabletop exercises is to set up a simulated disaster scenario and talk through operational disruptions to determine how the organization would respond. These exercises help to pinpoint whether more training or resources are required and to identify any opportunities to improve response procedures. Previous tabletop exercises have included weather events such as tornadoes and ice storms that impact electric infrastructure, situations of workplace violence, cyber threats, and even world-wide pandemics.

Business continuity plans developed by electric cooperatives are designed to maintain the health and safety of the people working for them and to ensure that business critical operations continue without interruption. These measures help ensure that electric cooperatives continue to provide reliable electricity during an ongoing, widespread, or disastrous event.

Planning for a health emergency, such as a pandemic, is unique from other business continuity planning. It requires businesses to prepare to operate with a significantly smaller workforce, a threatened supply chain, and limited support services for an extended period until an unknown date in the future.

Crew Foreman Tom Berkenpas disinfects a fleet truck.

Enter the Coronavirus Pandemic

Honing cooperative readiness measures has well-prepared NIPCO staff, especially in the initial weeks surrounding Governor Kim Reynolds' March 9, 2020, Proclamation of Disaster Emergency in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic. In the days leading up to her proclamation, NIPCO had begun to instruct personnel to take their laptops home with them at night, should there be a reason they could not report to the office the following day. On March 12th, NIPCO initiated employee restrictions on travel through April 1 and began to assess options for its upcoming Annual Meeting, scheduled for April 7.

As the Governor was mandating the closing of businesses and schools across Iowa and, under recommendation of the Iowa Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control, limiting gatherings to fifty people or less, NIPCO made the difficult decision to cancel its in-person annual meeting event. Instead, NIPCO will conduct it, according to the cooperative bylaws, in conjunction with its May Board of Directors Meeting. In NIPCO's 71-year history, the 2020 Annual Meeting was the first time an annual meeting event was not conducted as planned. The NIPCO Annual Report and 2019 audited financial information was post-mailed in April. A digital copy of the 2019 report is available on the NIPCO website. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the report, please submit your requestto Angela Catton.

At noon on April 1st, NIPCO closed its offices to the public and extended its travel restrictions through April 15. This action continues through April (and is likely to be extended for the foreseeable future) and is done to prevent exposure to germs and illnesses and to provide a safe working environment for NIPCO employees. Internally, NIPCO directed employees to practice recommended "social distancing" guidelines and the office continues to undergo enhanced daily cleaning and disinfecting of workspaces, common areas, equipment, and vehicles.

NIPCO Executive staff met to discuss a work-from-home strategy and how operation would continue, should a "shelter-in-place" order be directed by the Governor. As the first cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by Coronavirus, began to emerge in Plymouth County NIPCO implemented its business continuity plans outlined for Control Center Operations and inside and outside personnel. Field staff and line crews continue to work in pairs or individually, do not share vehicles and are restricted from congregating in common areas. Work done in the field is done observing proper social spacing but in such a way as to ensure the safety of crew members working on or near electric infrastructure.

NIPCO crew members observe social spacing while tackling projects and outages on the system.

In March and April, NIPCO conducted its regular monthly board meetings via the Microsoft Teams platform. NIPCO staff continues to meet virtually and regularly among its staff, with its member distribution cooperatives and municipal utilities, Iowa's Statewide Association (Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives), and NRECA (National Rural Electric Cooperative Association), as well as coordinating with other co-ops in the electric sector to prepare for and respond to any additional disasters or threats to critical infrastructure and its workforce resulting from the pandemic or other situations.

Through this coordination, electric co-ops and government partners have focused on actions and strategies that help protect the energy grid, prevent threats that may disrupt electric service, and develop capabilities that help electric co-ops quickly respond and recover when major incidents impact the grid.

And, while operations continue to be impacted by recommendations and restrictions placed on the state and the electric sector, NIPCO remains vigilant to ensuring the ongoing safety of its staff, directors, member cooperatives, and the general public while delivering on its mission. Being a cooperative means that our very foundation is built on the seven cooperative principles which underscore that a cooperative's success is not only dependent on its autonomy but that it also benefits from being a member of a network of fellow cooperatives. Cooperatives are able to stand alone, yet they are stronger together. It's the cooperative way. It's the cooperative rally cry....and its what makes NIPCO #PowerOn.

For additional insight into how electric generation and transmission cooperatives have operated during the Coronavirus pandemic, read the May feature story of Living with Energy in Iowa magazine.

For more information about coronavirus and preventing the spread of the virus, visit CDC at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-in-us.html. For COVID-19 updates from Iowa, visit: https://coronavirus.iowa.gov.