Responding to criticism from municipal leaders CL&P officials vowed Monday to hold 15 community forums across the state to discuss concerns raised about how the company handled the electric restoration process following Tropical Storm Irene.
The forums would help “get all the issues out on the table” regarding complaints from some town leaders that CL&P’s response was poorly organized and the company’s communications with local officials and customers was inadequate.
Company leaders announced the statewide forums during a public hearing before a legislative committee in Hartford this afternoon. The hearing began last week and was reconvened today. Although CL&P, the state’s largest electric provider, gave testimony during the first day of the hearing last week, company officials were invited back to address some of the issues that were raised throughout the two days hearing.
William J. Quinlan, CL&P’s vice president of customer solutions, said the firm is committed to working with town leaders “to get to the heart of the issue around communication and coordination” surrounding CL&P’s storm response.
“We think those issues are key to building strong partnerships with towns and cities,” he said.
During testimony last week before the committee, leaders of several towns and cities castigated CL&P for taking too long to get information to them about the power restoration effort and that in some cases representatives for the company who were sent to the towns to provide information knew little about the restoration and couldn’t even call their bosses to get updates.
Quinlan said the company is currently working with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and legislative leaders to set the times and locations for the forums, which he said would be held on a regional basis but would include all 149 towns that CL&P serves.
Quinlan and other company officials also testified that CL&P is undertaking a broad-based self-evaluation of their response to Tropical Storm Irene, which hit the state last month, knocking out power to some 800,000 people and leaving entire communities in the dark for days. That evaluation, he said, will help the company identify its weaknesses and improve its response processes.
“We’re taking very seriously the comments that we’ve heard and we’ve been factoring those into” the planning going forward, he said.
One of the changes the company is considering, Quinlan said, is improving the training of CL&P liaisons that were sent out after the storm to help the company communicate with town leaders. Those employees, Quinlan said, need better training on CL&P’s technical system to better communicate with local officials.
Other changes the company expects to make to improve its storm response in the future include upgrades to its circuit mapping system to make it easier to overlay that system with street maps to give towns and customers better information on when the power will come back on in their areas and improvements to the company’s communication systems to include more conventional forms of communication when cell phones and land lines don’t work.
Town officials, he said, found creative ways to communicate with each other and their residents, including using battery-operated radios and handing out flyers.
He also said the company intends to work on teaching town officials how CL&P operates in a large-scale event like Irene so they’ll better understand the overall process.
Despite those assurances of improvements underway at the company, State Sen. Edward Meyer, a Democrat whose district covers Branford, Durham, Guilford, Killingworth, Madison & North Branford, had harsh words for company leaders.
Meyer said his part of the state got hit particularly hard by Irene and that his neighborhood was without power for nearly a week because it took that long for CL&P to clear trees off wires in his area, wires that feed power to some 500 customers. He questioned why the area wasn’t a bigger priority for the company, given how many customers were out of power there.
“I don’t think CL&P was really prepared the Monday after the storm. I don’t think they were prepared until Wednesday or Thursday,” Meyer said, adding that the company didn’t seem to know how to handle the influx of out of state crews that finally came to help restore power.
“The other impression I had was that you didn’t have clear restoration priorities.” Meyer said he spoke with one work crew that sat in a truck for about five hours waiting for orders from supervisors on where to work.
He said CL&P needs to improve its storm response plan “so this never, ever happens again.”
His comments echoed many made earlier in the hearing Monday morning when the general public had a chance to testify.
Bruce Chimento, Killingly’s public works director, said there was a lot of confusion coordinating restoration efforts locally with CL&P.
“They could not get their assets out to the field,” Chimento said. “If an asset was ready for us at 7 a.m. in the morning, we did not receive it until 1 p.m. or 2 p.m.”
Chimento noted a situation where a line crew had to ground a wire before it could safely restore a line, but said it took hours before the crew received clearance from the utility company to do so.
“That took three hours of people standing around waiting for somebody at headquarters to tell them they could do it,” Chimento said.
Richard Sank, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Meriden, said he felt CL&P “did a poor job” coordinating the restoration efforts and was ill prepared for a storm of Irene’s magnitude. As an example, Sank noted a situation where he said the utility charted a flight from Canada to import line crews from that country, but then had to wait until the proper tools could be found for the crews once they arrived.
“You had a period of time where you had crews here and you couldn’t utilize them, and CL&P was scrambling to get them tools to work with,” Sank said.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, testified that many of her constituents complained to her that the electrical companies did not do a good job of providing information about when power might be restored in their area. She said some parts of Wilton lost power during the storm, on Aug. 28, but did not get it restored until Sept. 5, more than a week later, but that many residents were provided no or very little information about the restoration efforts.
“They wanted more information about what was actually happening,” Lavielle said. “…They simply wanted an explanation of the whys and the wherefores and that there was a message.”
Officials from United Illuminating also testified Monday. Anthony Marone, the company’s senior vice president of business management, said comments made earlier in the hearing regarding extending the hours that utility crews can work are wrong-headed. He said making tired workers labor longer hours is dangerous.
“United Illuminating would resist any proposal to allow workers to work longer hours in a large-scale restoration event,” Marone said.
The storm restoration, he added, cost UI $20-$25 million and some of those costs would have to be passed on to UI customers since the company does not have funds set aside for large-scale storm restoration programs.
“Our customers will have to pick up the costs for this,” he said.