The Saturday began not unlike any other summer day at Vermont Electric Cooperative.
Then the military helicopter showed up.
That was just one unexpected event to unfold at the Johnson co-op throughout a full-scale physical and cyber management training exercise sponsored by the U.S. Northern Command of the National Guard.
Three years in the planning, Vigilant Guard 2016 involved 20 co-op personnel working with the National Guard and state emergency officials to test preparedness for both natural disasters and a cyber attack on the electric grid. Participants in the July 30-31 event met unprecedented challenges on various fronts.
Maj. Gen. Steven Cray, who arrived by helicopter and toured VEC’s control center with other military personnel, brought highly specific computer and cyber expertise and provided information and valuable feedback to VEC after the exercise, co-op officials said.
“Hearing the helicopter approach while we were working, watching it land here, and seeing Maj. Gen. Cray emerge sure added a level of realism to the exercise,” said Kris Smith, manager of SCADA and operations engineering at VEC.
Aftershocks of a mock earthquake caused a rockslide to shut down essential communications systems as VEC staff battled a cyber attack to the grid to prevent any interruption of electric service.
“Once the mock cyber attack was announced we invoked an operating procedure that had never been tested,” said Robert Stein, VEC manager of information technology.
In a field outside VEC headquarters, co-op staff manipulated the National Guard’s satellite link to pass data short-term in a pinch. All of this occurred while actual co-op crises erupted.
“We had to manage some real business emergencies concurrent with the drill, and that heightened our reactions to all that was happening,” said Stein. “It started to feel quite real at that point. We treated the drill with a serious tone, and it began to feel genuine.”
Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.