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PUC: Utilities must improve communication skills, but response to Irene efficient

By   /   October 18, 2011  /   No Comments

Communication breakdowns frustrated many consumers after storm
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Electric utility companies must improve communication with customers after severe storms this summer caused phone systems to be overloaded and left some people without information about when power would be restored.

In the wake of Hurricane Irene, which struck Pennsylvania during the last week of August, more than 1.3 million Pennsylvanians did not have power, mostly in the southeast and northeast corners of the state. It took more than a week for all customers to have their power restored.
Robert Powelson, chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, or PUC, charged with balancing customer needs with utility’s interests, said communications with ratepayers must improve. His tone was more critical than during last week’s PUC hearing with the utility companies’ executives where the companies were praised for their efforts at restoring power.  
“Utilities’ systems for answering customers’ phone calls during outages need to improve, unequivocally,” Powelson told a joint meeting of the Senate Consumer Affairs Committee and Emergency Preparedness Committee on Tuesday. “And utilities’ methods for notifying customers during outages should be more technology friendly.”
While visiting with constituents in shelters after the storm, state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Pike, said she was told many were without power for more than a week and others received misleading information from their utility companies about when power would be restored. Those responses left many feeling frustrated and angry, she said.
“The communication piece was absolutely the biggest breakdown,” Baker said. “Some people were told to call every day. Some people were told, ‘Why are you calling? You’re bothering me.’”
Powelson called the reports of communication problems “alarming, but fixable.”
Internal communications between the electric companies and their crews on the ground have room to improve as well, Powelson said, pointing to a situation where an independent contractor working on downed power lines moved through an area affected by outages and on to New Jersey.  In that instance, the utility company waited too long to make a determination about whether they needed additional personnel, he said.
“There was a complete and utter failure of communication between the service territory and the corporate entity,” Powelson said.
Representatives of utility companies said Tuesday they were looking into greater use of social media and texting.
But Powelson said companies should upgrade their communications networks in preparation for future storms. 
Of the 1.3 million Pennsylvanians who lost power during Hurricane Irene, 94 percent had it restored within 72 hours, but the remaining 6 percent were without power for up to 10 days. Those customers were in difficult to reach locations or near the bottom of the companies’ priority list.
Executives of four major Pennsylvania utility companies said they prioritized their responses to focus on public safety first, including police stations, hospitals and nursing homes, followed by areas where there was large numbers of outages.
In hard-hit areas, residents complained of poor communication between companies and residents, and local newspapers reported businesses losing thousands of dollars in perishable goods because of the outages. Breakdowns in communication about when power would be restored further complicated the situation.
Mike Innocenzo, a vice president for PECO, the electric utility for the Philadelphia area, said he realized the quick response time for the vast majority of customers was little comfort for the 5,600 PECO customers without power for more than five days.
Baker also pressed Douglas Elliott, president of Pennsylvania operations for First Energy, which operates Met-Ed and Penelec utility companies, on reports that the company allocated repair workers to New Jersey while there were still outages in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Elliott denied those reports. He said all First Energy workers remained in the state until power was restored.
PUC is completing reports on the storm and the response to it, though regulatory changes are unlikely.
“It’s still a human tragedy for some people to be without (power),” said state Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-Bucks. “I think there are some good marks, but there’s also a lot of work to be done, even by those who did a good job and got the repairs done.”
State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Washington, said better preparation on the part of consumers — and a little patience—would make things much smoother.
“We’ve become such a society of instant gratification,” Solobay said. “I think sometimes we’ve become too depending on things and I get frustrated by people who get too upset about things like that.”
Any residents who suffered lost or damaged property as a result of the storm should submit claims to their insurance companies or their utility company, if they believe the company caused the damage, the utility executives said.