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Storm responders: Protecting business against extreme weather

Published on October 11, 2022

RSK’s Climate Realities series explores the wide-ranging impacts of the latest IPCC reports across our global business environment. In this insight, we look at how Britain can step up its storm and flood response, speaking with two RSK businesses tackling climate-change-induced severe weather events. Naomi Hobbs of RSK RAW explains the changing insurance environment and its impact on preparation and Adam Barker from Hi-Line describes the company’s role in remediating storm damage and the importance of preparedness.

Globally, as the climate crisis progresses, extreme weather events are becoming increasingly commonplace. We have seen devastating flooding across Asia and Europe and in the last year alone, the UK has been affected by a series of severe storms – Ciara, Dudley and Eunice – that brought high winds, heavy rain and flooding. Incidents of severely stormy weather are expected to occur more frequently and become more intense as our climate changes. How we prepare for and recover from these events will have a significant impact on business.

In the UK, businesses are given a certain degree of regulatory guidance to protect their operations against storm damage. For distribution network operators in particular, which are on the front line when storms hit, this guidance dictates that policies, procedures, resources and programmes for response should already be in place. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent, as the severity of storm events increases, that this guidance is in some places no longer sufficient. As the team at Hi Line is increasingly finding, preparedness for the kind of storms we are seeing in the UK now needs to go beyond the regulation: to make ready in line with the guidance is no longer a reflection of the reality of storms. This raises the question of whether we need to see revisions to our national storm response.

In the New Year of 2022, the UK was hit by three consecutive storms that caused damage to national infrastructure and homes. High winds in particular create a significant risk to the national utilities network, especially when our overhead power lines are ageing.

Ofgem’s review of the damage caused by Storm Arwen, which hit the UK in November 2021, found that ageing poles were the most likely structure to be damaged during extreme weather. As our infrastructure ages, the risk of damage to the network increases, resulting in greater numbers of responder call-outs to organisations like Hi Line that are needed to secure the network. A crucial part of this work takes place long before there is any forecast of stormy weather: resilience and damage prevention are vital features of arboriculture work. However, regular tree clearing is in an effort to maintain line safety rather than a storm resilience measure. Regulation dictates that a tree clearance area of 3 to 3.6 metres is needed around overhead service lines – in its review, Ofgem states that this safety clearance doesn’t contribute to the resilience of the network in the face of extreme weather.

What can be done?

Implementing greater clearance zones for nearby trees and vegetation is one means to prevent the damage caused by trees falling onto overhead lines, but the challenge is far deeper than that.

Safety, or more importantly, the ability of a response team to safely remediate damage, is of paramount importance and requires greater coordination and automation across call-out groups. In the front line work carried out by teams at Hi Line, ensuring the contractor and the utility company are unified in their response ensures not only speed in recovering the service but also safety. The level of preparedness adopted by businesses needs to reflect a changing and escalating situation, hence the need to introduce tougher standards. Measures need to incorporate safety procedures for contractors, as it is these regulations on emergency call-out response that guarantee the safety of operatives.

What are the consequences of failing to prepare?

The consequences to business of not stepping up the preparedness regulations are great.

Business is at the forefront of climate change risk, especially in terms of storm risk, and damage to utilities networks and fuel storage infrastructure is becoming increasingly common. The losses, and the extent of losses, this causes to businesses as a result of climate change means proactive adaptations need to be made to working practices to mitigate against risk and maintain the insurance cover that protects a business should an event occur. Not suitably preparing for such an event may render insurance cover void.

Alongside these increased regulatory actions, we also need to see change to conventional business practices. The response team at RSK RAW is increasingly seeing how vital it is to protect business assets in line with the reality of climate risk. In the context of escalating extreme weather, liability for damage is magnified and we are likely to see many claims in a short space of time. It is therefore vital that businesses are proactive and measures are taken to protect against this risk, including hydraulic modelling, spill risk mapping, implementation of containment measures and response training.

Storm response: how do we protect businesses?

What is clear is that much greater attention needs to be paid to improving regulations around storm preparedness and response, so that measures truly reflect the reality we are seeing now. Following the damage caused by the storms that hit New York in 2012, to the value of around USD 60 billion, UK bodies made moves to address regulatory challenges. Now, ten years later, we are seeing storms become frequent rather than freak events. Alongside this, adaptations need to be made to mitigate the impact of these events and to ensure insurance can be secured to protect businesses against the financial, physical and legal implications.

Adam Barker, SHEQ and Business Development Director at Hi Line, is a specialist in arboriculture management, providing continued professional and emergency response services to the energy and utilities sectors.

Naomi Hobbs, GRC Manager at RSK RAW, provides expert ground investigation, risk assessment, spill response and environmental compliance services.

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