A Team of Teams: Communities Depend on ‘Power team’ to Restore Power to Save and Sustain Life

A power outage that began in Ohio spread across seven states and into Canada as brush fires caused transmission lines to go out of service.

Mass transit shut down, traffic chaos filled the streets, cell phone towers became overwhelmed, and approximately 5,000 critical facilities requested emergency generators after losing power.

Nancy Church, the National Temporary Power Program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, rehearses response drills and roles during a disaster response scenario with the “power team” during a Temporary Emergency Power Regional Mission Exercise in Edison, New Jersey, May 29, 2024. USACE PHOTO BY MICHEL SAURET

Various governors declared a state of emergency. A “power team” deployed to New Jersey, providing relief to overwhelmed communities and infrastructures to save and safeguard lives.

“Power means everything to so many people,” said Bob Isler, the planning and response temporary power mission manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. “Our mission is to give communities their power back in the aftermath of a disaster because power means life.”

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In reality, the catastrophic brush burns in Ohio never happened. The power outage scenario was part of a two-week training exercise known as the Temporary Emergency Power Regional Mission Exercise. It simulated a devastating power outage meant to stress the need for quick response.

“This training is going to make us that much quicker, that much more responsive, when FEMA calls upon us, because no one else can do it, and the nation needs us,” said Col. Phillip Valenti, the deputy commander for the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, which oversees the power response program on behalf of USACE.

Todd Liebig, the response operations liaison for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gives a briefing to a team about FEMA’s role in response to a natural disaster during a Temporary Emergency Power Regional Mission Exercise in Edison, New Jersey, May 29, 2024. USACE PHOTO MY MICHEL SAURET
Todd Liebig, the response operations liaison for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gives a briefing to a team about FEMA’s role in response to a natural disaster during a Temporary Emergency Power Regional Mission Exercise in Edison, New Jersey. USACE PHOTO MY MICHEL SAURET

The power team does not come from a single government organization. Multiple federal, state, and local agencies trained together to coordinate, deliver, and install generators at critical sites.

“The power team is a team of teams,” said Nancy Church, the National Temporary Power Program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s a whole team effort that brings us together to create this mission to restore power.”

Scott Bartholomew, a planning and response team member from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, collects data from an emergency generator during a Temporary Emergency Power Regional Mission Exercise in Edison, New Jersey, May 30, 2024. USACE PHOTO BY MICHEL SAURET

Emergency and planning response experts from across the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power), state and local governments, contractors, and other response partners come together each time a disaster strikes.

The loss of power can affect multiple “lifelines,” Church said. Lifelines are key resources that FEMA identifies as having a major impact on a community’s safety and needs.

“When we install generators, we help restore communication towers, transportation nodes, medical facilities, and shelters. These all fall under different lifelines,” Church said. “Our mission has the potential for touching every one of those needs.”

Spc. Carlos Rojas, a U.S. Army Soldier with the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power), assesses a generator to determine the power needs of a hospital in Willingboro, New Jersey, during a Temporary Emergency Power Regional Mission Exercise, May 30, 2024
Spc. Carlos Rojas, a U.S. Army Soldier with the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power), assesses a generator to determine the power needs of a hospital in Willingboro, New Jersey, during a Temporary Emergency Power Regional Mission Exercise, May 30, 2024. USACE PHOTO BY MICHEL SAURET

The training included emergency experts and Planning Response Teams from three USACE districts: Pittsburgh, Walla Walla and Memphis. USACE deploys response teams from around the country within 24 hours of notice. They help communities across the nation and U.S. territories during emergency power loss.

“Whenever we deploy, we realize these people are our neighbors. They are our cousins. They are someone’s family,” Isler said.

The training occurred at the New Jersey All Hazard Incident Management Team headquarters in Edison, New Jersey. The staff designed the exercise to streamline communication and information databases across agencies.

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“This training means we can give power back to people who are suffering, who need generators, who need our support, so much faster,” Isler said.

Communicating across government agencies can be difficult, especially during disasters. The training forced various scenarios upon the power team. In a short time, the team had to make quick decisions and coordinate across agencies for proper support.

“It takes a group of highly dedicated people to do this mission,” Isler said.

The two-week exercise included training injects to create stress and chaos similar to real-world power blackouts. The teams trained by coordinating emergency generators to critical facilities in need such as hospitals, water treatment facilities and emergency response centers.
The two-week exercise included training injects to create stress and chaos similar to real-world power blackouts. The teams trained by coordinating emergency generators to critical facilities in need such as hospitals, water treatment facilities and emergency response centers. USACE PHOTO BY MICHEL SAURET

The training also included valuable real-world activities. The 249th Eng. Bn. Soldiers assessed more than 300 facilities across New Jersey, including hospitals, police stations, water treatment plants, and other critical facilities. The data they collected could help FEMA respond faster to real-world catastrophes.

“We want to restore temporary power in the quickest manner possible to reduce suffering and save as many lives as possible,” said Todd Liebig the response operations liaison for the FEMA Integration Team.

Liebig works for FEMA’s Region 2, including multiple eastern states, plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

“Though this is a simulated training, it has real-world implications,” Liebig said. “With this training, we are always getting better prepared for the next disaster.”

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The exercise included experts and specialists with a wide range of experience. Some have been working in the federal government for decades, with dozens of hurricanes and similar disaster deployments under their belt.

Some USACE teammates have deployed so often that they have lost count of how many missions they have completed. Others were newer to the program and only recently joined the mission. This training was their first exercise with the power team.

A “power team” made up of Soldiers and civilians from multiple governmental agencies trained together during a two-week exercise May 27 through June 7. The scenario simulated a devastating power outage affecting multiple states.
A “power team” made up of Soldiers and civilians from multiple governmental agencies trained together during a two-week exercise May 27 through June 7. The scenario simulated a devastating power outage affecting multiple states. USACE PHOTO BY MICHEL SAURET

However, all team members had one factor in common: They all volunteered for this mission, in addition to their full-time jobs.

“Thank you for being part of the team,” Valenti told the group over a teleconference briefing. “Thanks for volunteering. I know this is above and beyond what all of you already do. I know we have a lot on our plates, but this is hugely important to the nation.”