It’s a matter of Public Safety

September 27, 2011

What lessons did Irene teach us? The recent legislative hearings regarding tropical storm Irene in Hartford demonstrated several deficiencies in our response plans. Everyone agrees we need to do better.

Executives from our largest utility companies testified that “yes” they need to fix their response procedures during a crisis. I attended the hearings as the Ranking Member of the Public Safety Committee.

Local leaders all reported they were completely with out power for several days. Most of our towns lost phone service too, including 911 service. Hundreds of roads were blocked by downed trees, especially in Willington. I toured the damage and was surprised to find out some roads in Hampton were not passable to fire trucks.

It was revealed at the public hearing there was at least a two to three day delay before serious action was taken to restore power in Eastern Connecticut. It took the utilities too long to find the worst hit areas on their systems and they did not have communication tools to keep customers informed. Once crews were deployed from CL&P and as far away as Nevada and Missouri, positive steps started to finally take place.

The main question is: Forecasters were predicting a severe event and families prepared, so why didn’t the utilities?

During the hearing people also spoke of expanding 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 with expanded tree trimming we can avoid some of the hazards ahead of time.
Problems with real time communication during efforts to restore power were also discussed. CL&P’s Vice President for customer service testified his company revised its outage tracking reports during the storm recovery. They incorporated not only which circuits and substations were off line but, which local roads and streets were affected.
Telephone company leaders were also questioned. One concern especially for Eastern Connecticut was that cell towers didn’t have the proper battery back up. An AT&T executive testified that rural communities are likely served by a remote cellular terminal which routes land line calls over a cellular network.
What happens if electricity and cellular phone services are interrupted and a neighborhood also loses the use of land line phones in the process? He didn’t know what back up plan was in place.
That is a public safety issue that needs to become our top priority.

While I am hopeful much will be learned from these hearings we have the responsibility to fix what isn’t working. It’s a matter of public safety.