Pittsburgh Emergency Team Leads National Response to Restore Emergency Power Across US

Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Floods.

No matter what kind of or where a natural disaster might strike in the United States if a community loses electricity in a crisis, there is only one district within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tasked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate emergency power.

The lead temporary power office is not in New York City, Washington, D.C., or even Chicago.

“If there’s a power need, no matter where it is, anywhere within the 50 states and five territories, the mission support comes through Pittsburgh,” said Al Coglio, the chief of Emergency Management for the Pittsburgh District.

Pittsburgh District hosts training to provide emergency power during natural disasters
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Michel Sauret

During natural disasters, the district responds to provide generators, remove debris, and protect damaged roofs from ensuing rain. Multiple districts across the country share responsibilities for cleanup and roof restoration programs, but only the Pittsburgh District leads the temporary power mission.

“We are the action arm of the Corps of Engineers to direct the contractors, deploy teams and link up FEMA-provided generators to critical facilities during emergencies,” Coglio said.

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Whether a hospital, emergency center or shelter loses power, the Pittsburgh District synchronizes with government civilians, contractors, Soldiers, and FEMA to deliver, set up and maintain generators to life-sustaining facilities.

“We continually improve our process and implement lessons learned from the past so teams can respond in a matter of hours to deploy,” Coglio said.

Pittsburgh District hosts training to provide emergency power during natural disasters
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Michel Sauret

The volunteers who form planning response teams come from across the Corps of Engineers and work directly with the emergency office in Pittsburgh deploy within 24 hours.

“We couldn’t do this alone,” said Kristen Day, the contracting project manager for the Pittsburgh District’s Emergency Management office.

The response mission is complex, requiring broad coordination across the federal, state, and local levels. Even though most forces of nature hit more frequently during certain parts of the year, it is a full-time, year-round job to remain ready for those intense few weeks or months.

“We’re often asked, what do you do the rest of the year when you’re not responding to a natural disaster? We prepare, and we train,” said Julie D’Annunzio, an emergency management specialist for the Pittsburgh District.

Pittsburgh District hosts training to provide emergency power during natural disasters
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Michel Sauret

Recently, the Pittsburgh District hosted the first simulated emergency exercise in years to improve coordination with their response partners. Additionally, the team constantly takes lessons learned from past missions to speed up their response times and partnerships.

“When we’re not responding to a national crisis, we’re working to improve our process,” D’Annunzio said.

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Normally, FEMA hosts the National Response Framework exercise three times a year, but the coronavirus pandemic halted major training events throughout the federal government. However, the Pittsburgh District saw the need and brought the training back.

“That shows the passion we have to make the program as good as it can be,” Coglio said of the training.

Pittsburgh District hosts training to provide emergency power during natural disasters
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Michel Sauret

Coglio’s team set up a command post, inviting Soldiers from the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) and contracting partners to simulate a major outage in Pittsburgh and Huntington districts. During the scenario, Soldiers received a list of buildings that lost power and deployed to those locations in small teams to assess facilities and determine what type of generators and logistical support they would need.

“Pittsburgh is pretty special because it has the three rivers, locks and dams, and it gave us an opportunity to work on different types of assessments, all requiring different configurations in a short amount of time,” said Sgt. 1st Class Keith Quevedo, a prime power supervisor with the 249th Engineer Battalion, headquartered in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

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During the training, Soldiers assessed actual police departments, emergency response centers, fire stations, high school gymnasiums, and other buildings that could serve as shelters.

The training exercise brought Soldiers, Army civilians, and contractors from multiple organizations into one room to work together in a controlled environment. The training allowed them to understand one another’s workflows better so they could react faster to real-world catastrophes.

Pittsburgh District hosts training to provide emergency power during natural disasters
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Michel Sauret

“Working together here helps us understand one another’s process. It gives us the motivation to work better together. If we understand the why, it pushes you to achieve better results,” Quevedo said.

The Soldiers visited 28 locations over three days, including the corps’ field offices, and uploaded detailed reports and photos into a central database that will help synchronize response agencies in the future.

“Even though the training exercise was simulated, the assessments were real. The data we gathered will really help if our own region needs emergency power,” D’Annunzio said, who was the lead organizer for the exercise.

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Many of the buildings assessed offered real challenges. For example, one emergency medical response office in Pittsburgh operates out of an old firehouse built in 1898. Gas light fixtures still exist throughout the building as a visual reminder of a past era past.

The building runs on electricity, not gas. Over time, the city installed panels and power lines feeding into the building at various stages, which served as a perfect example of why assessments are so necessary. No single generator fits every situation or need. Even deciding where to place a generator without blocking off narrow streets was a factor to consider.

“Every facility has different needs. These assessments benefit the corps and our partners. They help build real-world documents to improve local preparedness,” D’Annunzio said.

She coordinated with various emergency response professionals in Allegheny County to select facilities that pool resources and could benefit from an assessment.

Pittsburgh District hosts training to provide emergency power during natural disasters
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Michel Sauret

Training during the slower months like January and February is the perfect time for their office, D’Annunzio said, because they are only a few months removed from the previous year’s hurricane season. Yet, other emergencies caused by nature can happen at any time, like the tornadoes that devastated Alabama in mid-January.

“We train now so no matter when we’re called upon to act, we’re ready,” D’Annunzio said.

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