By Dennis Porter, alumnus, Homeland Security, American Military University
A sobering power grid reliability report recently revealed that power outages are likely this summer in parts of California, the Midwest and Texas. This report suggests that outages may not just be restricted to the summer months when electricity is in high demand but may become a more common occurrence in the coming years.
This report brings to light an issue that many states and local governments aren’t addressing: The possibility of widespread grid power outages that would cause people to be out of electricity for long periods.
Law enforcement agencies, fire departments and other public safety agencies aren’t preparing for it either. As a former Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff still involved in the law enforcement community in California, I have posed a scenario of a national “grid down” event to dozens of police officers and firefighters in the western United States.
I’ve asked if agencies have any kind of plan to deal with the civil unrest of extended power outages, either statewide or nationwide. The answer I often receive is a quizzical expression and a resounding “No.” The next question I ask is whether or not this subject is even being discussed. Again, the answer is “No.”
What Could Cause a National Power-Grid Failure?
There are at least three things that could cause a failure of the U.S. electricity system. The first, and most likely scenario, is terrorism. There have been several reports of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure around the world and experts are warning that similar, more severe, cyberattacks are highly probable.
There are two other potential threats to the power grid, and while they are less likely, they are still worth considering:
- Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) – A nuclear bomb could be exploded in the upper atmosphere to cause an EMP. This would bring down the power grid, disrupt communications, take down the internet and GPS navigation – and even make vehicles inoperable.
- “Space Weather” – A geomagnetic storm triggered by a powerful solar flare or Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) would bring the power grid down. The biggest recorded solar storm to hit our planet was the Carrington Event in 1859.
Consider all the things that won’t work without electricity such as phones, radio communications, computers, cars, ATMs, credit card point-of-sale scanners, gas pumps and many more. As such, the challenges for law enforcement range from logistical to personnel related.
Are Agencies Planning for a Grid-Down Scenario?
There have been numerous books and articles written about the aftermath of a grid outage and the chaos that would ensue in every community. However, none of the current articles, books or other resources discussing the aftermath of such an event mentions the role of local police or fire departments.
It is assumed, and taken for granted, that police and fire departments would be able to respond to emergencies. Agencies must keep in mind that during such a disaster, gas pumps would not work, leaving many firefighters and police officers stranded and unable to report for duty. In southern California, for example, most police and firefighters live more than 50 miles away from their duty stations, and many of the deputies I worked with lived more than 70 miles away from the station.
So why aren’t police and fire departments doing more to train for this event? Why aren’t they having discussions about the implications of a grid-down scenario and how their response would have to be modified? While many public safety professionals are aware of such a scenario and the dire consequences it would have on a community, why are these conversations not happening?
If such a disaster occurred, police and fire departments would remain the primary responders. Federal agencies like FEMA would likely be just as paralyzed as the general population and local first responder agencies. Even in the best circumstances, FEMA wouldn’t be able to move resources or respond to every community all at once. FEMA simply does not have the resources to assist small or large cities on a national scale. Therefore, every community, neighborhood and home would be largely on its own and forced to be self-sufficient until order is restored.
How Can Police and Fire Departments Prepare for Widespread Power Outages?
Here are just a handful of questions agencies should be asking in preparation for a possible collapse of the power grid:
- How do we retain on-duty officers who want to go home to make sure their families are safe and secure?
- How will watch commanders deploy on-duty personnel without communications or operational vehicles in a worst-case scenario?
- How can professional staff get home safely during a prolonged power outage?
- Will officers scheduled to relieve the on-duty shift be kept from reporting due to the loss of power? Perhaps they won’t want to leave their families fearing for their security.
- What resources are on hand – or easily accessible – that don’t require electricity?
- How will information be communicated to the general public?
The above suggestions have only scratched the surface of what needs to be considered for an extended power-grid-down scenario. These supplies and plans need to be made now because if the power grid goes down, it will be too late to start preparing.
Police and fire departments are doing their community a disservice by not including this scenario in their disaster planning process.