A Failure to Communicate and the Power to Fix It

September 26, 2011

What did Tropical Storm Irene teach us? It taught us that accurate communication and a plan of action are essential when preparing for a recovering from a powerful storm.

Executives from the state’s largest utility companies recently testified before a joint legislative committee hearing that “yes” they need to fix their response protocol. But will the companies take action?

Local leaders from the towns of Ridgefield, Weston, Wilton, Redding, and New Canaan all reported they were completely without power for several days and hundreds of roads were blocked. While residents sat in the dark, utilities were scrambling for workers and providing unreliable and conflicting messages.

Most towns observed that there was a delay of at least three days before any noticeable action was taken. Those prolonged delays impacted the following:

school closure decisions
residents with serious medical conditions were uncertain if they should make alternative care arrangements
residents with well water and septic systems faced health concerns over whether to drink the water and how to dispose waste

Once crews were deployed from within Connecticut and as far away as Nevada, Florida and Missouri, however, good things started to happen.

If we have learned anything from the special hearings it is the following: utilities had a communications failure and delay in response time. Forecasters were predicting a severe event and families prepared, so why didn’t the utilities? I testified before the committees and suggested the following; (click here for the full testimony)

  • we need real time and accurate communication protocols between state, towns, customers and utilities,
  • we need technology upgrades that model Fed EX or UPS systems to track outage restoration updates,
  • we should prioritize homes that are on septic systems and well water,
  • we must recognize vulnerable populations- the elderly and sick,
  • we should Identify trees to be cut or trimmed on a regular basis

Utility executives testified they revised outage tracking reports during the storm recovery to incorporate not only which circuits and substations were off line but, which local roads and streets were affected. They also revealed plans to spend $15 million to revise call center and outage management systems.

An important side note: I feel strongly that the utilities do not propose a rate increase in the aftermath of a storm. This was an unfortunate communication gaff by the power companies that added to the public’s anger.

Adding to the anger was the fact that many towns were without 911 services after the storm. Many people assume that phones work even when the power is out. An AT&T executive testified rural communities are likely served by a remote cellular terminal. If electricity and cellular phone services are interrupted, the use of land line phones can be lost. The lack of a back up system is a public safety issue.

Officials also had trouble getting the goods to those in need. When the state plan failed, some town’s first responders rented tractor trailer trucks and drove them to Hartford to pick up much needed drinking water, only to wait 12 hours or be redirected to another city sometimes with the wrong directions.

Tree trimming is also an issue. Although Connecticut clear cut trees many years ago when farming was a major industry, it has now returned to its forested past. Many legislators and residents are asking to expand the tree trimming zones. Utilities currently have the right to trim limbs that fall within 15 feet of power lines from above, eight feet from the side, or within 10 feet at a level below the lines. It seems reasonable that some hazards could be removed ahead of time.

In summary, Connecticut’s response to Irene was strong in many ways.

Line crews once they arrived were hailed as the stars of the operation.

Our towns were praised for their skill in responding to residents concerns and in commodity distribution.

Neighbors helped neighbors with food, generators and access to a hot shower.
The information provided by residents has been invaluable. It has been given to the utilities, legislators and agencies that have oversight. They should take these suggestions seriously. Fix what is broken.