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Round Two: Lawmakers Hear More About Utilities’ Failings

by Hugh McQuaid | Sep 26, 2011 11:18am
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Posted to: State Capitol, Weather

Hugh McQuaid Photo

Frank Cirillo, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 420

(Updated 5:01 p.m.) Connecticut’s utility companies were criticized Monday on their response to Tropical Storm Irene for allegedly sacrificing service and maintenance in favor of profits, leaving them ill-prepared to deal with the storm.

During the first hearing over the storm last week, municipal leaders complained about a lack of communication with utility companies. But for their part executives of Connecticut Light and Power, United Illuminating, as well as phone and cable providers, gave themselves high marks for the restoration.

But when the public and the unions representing utility workers had the opportunity to talk about their experiences, the tone was quite different. Complaints ranged from frustrations with communication to outright safety breaches.

Frank Cirillo, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 420, said that utilities have been making drastic cuts to their staffing levels, despite having more customers.

However, Kevin Del Gobbo, chairman of the Public Utilities Authority, said that since 2001 the number of line workers the company employs has actually increased from 385 to 422.

He noted that the definition of what constitutes a line worker can vary. The term might include line mechanics and troubleshooters but there is a larger subset of electricians and splicers that may or may not be called line workers, he said. Because of that varying definition the number of workers in the category can be difficult to validate, he said.

“I say this guardedly, based on the data I have now, under either measure, they appear at least not to have gone down,” he said.

Cirillo also complained the company has limited workers to only working 16 hours on followed by an 8-hour rest periods during long-term storm response periods. He said that policy was profit driven, not as CL&P contends, a safety measure.

Thirty-seven line workers have died from accidents on the job since the late 1950s and only one of them was following a large storm, he said.

“Using that type of theory one would have to say that a nice, sunny day we shouldn’t be working. It’s like that old driving school training, most accidents happen within five miles of home,” he said.

As a division of Northeast Utilities, CL&P shares the policy with a number of sister companies. Cirillo said that when unions representing utility workers in New Hampshire asked about the rule they were told it was a fiscal decision.

“We’ve just been doing this slightly over 100 years and I find very hard to believe that people would not let the employees work longer,” he said.

Jean de Smet, an electrician and former first selectwoman of Windham, said she saw CL&P’s response to the storm as riddled with critical failures.

While wires were still down on the ground, she said some residents came to her with concerns about what would happen when CL&P re-energized the lines.

“I as an electrician said, there is no way that CL&P will energize your circuit until they have checked all those lines. There’s just no way this company would ever do that. I know them and I trust them. I was wrong in that case and I was wrong in other cases,” she said.

de Smet said that for weeks there were trees and wires down in the Hills section of Willimantic and children were playing around the lines.

She said the aftermath of Irene serves to highlight the consequences of changes made at the company over the last few years.

“They are now answerable to their stockholders and they are not answerable to the public anymore,” she said. “They used to have service as their number one priority and they no longer do that. They’re cutting their maintenance and they’re cutting safety issues.”

CL&P wasn’t the only company criticized for profit driven cuts. William Henderson of Communications Workers of America blasted AT&T for cutting 1,600 telephone line workers over the last nine years.

“Routine maintenance has been sacrificed to a degree of almost non-existent. We have robbed Peter to pay Paul and Peter’s just checked into a homeless center,” he said.

The company used to have a scheduled maintenance plan to identify rotten telephone poles before they fell. Henderson said there are poles in the state that have been marked for replacement for more than five years. Many of them came down during the storm, he said.

The company has also been using poorly trained and equipped contractors for maintenance, he said. Many of these contractors were called in on the Sunday of the storm, while members of his union sat at home until Monday, he said.

“You may ask why and the answer is because they can but no one is holding their feet to the fire,” he said. “It seems to be cheaper to pay a fine than do the job right. Tell that half a million residents who lost power because of these rotten poles that fell down and should have been replaced.”

When he testified later in the hearing, AT&T Regional Vice President John Emra said he didn’t believe that rotted poles contributed to the power outages.

“I don’t believe that to be the case under any circumstance. I think with all due respect if a 300 year old tree lands on a pole line the pole is going to come down whether it was put in the ground yesterday or put in the ground 10 years ago,” he said.

He said every pole is checked on a 10 year basis but said their inspection is an ongoing process. He estimated that employees end up working on the poles about every two years. It’s difficult to estimate what the useful lifespan of a pole will be, he said. Poles located on the shoreline are exposed to harsher elements and won’t last as long as those in the woods.

Retired Connecticut Light and Power electrician Nick Coscia told lawmakers the utility could have better prepared for the storm by adopting scheduled disaster training for its employees.

The 73-year-old electrician was critical of a number of aspects of the CL&P’s response to the storm and said there are experienced retirees who could be utilized to improve the utilities operations.

“I could come back as an educator, not when the storm is on but prior to a storm, so I can be in the work centers and see where the weaknesses is, without blaming the companies, without blaming the unions, without blaming the public,” he said.

Coscia said the company should use sources within the state before it enlists the help of out-of-state utilities. At the peak of the restoration effort thousands of workers from other states were contracted to help restore power. Coscia said that because safety policies vary from company to company that was problematic.

His primary concern was a process called switching and tagging. When system switched off so line crews can work, it is tagged as turned off a certain way by the supervisor working. Utility workers undergo training to be qualified to to tag out systems.

“People came from out of state and done their own switching and tagging in our state. I don’t appreciate that, I don’t like that because I was qualified to switch out this entire state for every substation in the state of Connecticut. I had to go to school for that with the company,” he said.

Inconsistent tagging policies create safety concerns. If a line worker doesn’t recognize the system as tagged off he may inadvertently start to work on an energized line, he said.

“When you bring outside people in they should be working under our switching and tagging procedures so our people out there don’t get killed,” he said.

Like Cirillo, Coscia criticized CL&P’s 16-hour work policy. It slows the process down tremendously, he said. When a crew reaches its 16 hour limit, a new supervisor has to come on to the job and re-start the switching and tagging process, he said.

Supervisors should still be allowed to make the decision of when a crew stops working on a job, he said. The job is so inherently dangerous that no supervisor would willingly stay on a job if he feels the crew is too tired, Coscia said.

“Every time you make a move you could get killed,” he said. “Leave me alone and I’ll tell you when the job is done.”

Many people felt communication was the biggest shortcoming by utility companies in the aftermath of the storm.

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said in the weeks since Irene, she conducted a survey of the seven towns in her district. In a lot of ways the state had a strong response to the storm but communications between towns, the state and the utility companies slowed the process, she said.

Utility liaisons were sent to each town but were not given the any authority to direct work crews to priority areas, she said.

“There needs to be honest communication between public utilities and town officials to better manage residents’ expectations and make necessary decisions,” she said.

Town officials had trouble making plans like when to schedule the openings of schools when they had no concept of when power would be restored, she said. If the utilities had provided estimates of when the power would return, towns could have managed schools and kept healthcare facilities informed in case they had to make alternative arrangements, she said. 

Boucher said there was a general sense that the restoration effort in her district was delayed by a few days. Utility companies did not take any action until the third day after the storm, she said. Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation did not arrive until the second day, she said.

“They plowed the roadways even where there were downed wires and then left and never came back,” she said. “Local municipalities ended up cleaning both local and state roads to allow emergency vehicles through.”

Boucher recommended the General Assembly mandate a response and restoration plan, coordinated with the towns, and the power, phone, and cable companies.

Executives from both CL&P and United Illuminating were in the room to hear the criticisms. CL&P executives said they are taking a hard look at improving communications.

William Quinlan, vice president of customer solutions, said the company instituted some new communication mediums after the storm. For the first time the utility used social media sites to reach out to customers, he said. CL&P has 6,390 followers on Twitter and over 8,354 users have liked its Facebook page for updates.

The company sent out more than 572,000 texts to customers and posted important information on its website, which received more 1.2 million hits, he said.

One area the company is looking at improving is how to deliver information to customers in towns that are completely without power or phone services, he said.

“We really need to look at enhancing conventional communications methods and getting into the local communication channels and pushing out information,” Quinlan said.

Many local leaders instituted creative ways of communicating with residents, he said. CL&P will be looking to build upon those methods, he said.

David Roberge, director of Emergency Management in Old Lyme, credited CL&P with a strong response in his town, but said cell phone provider AT&T was a different story entirely.

“There also seemed to be a classic, or very drastic failure to any kind of support or any kind of communication we might have received or hoped to receive from AT&T,” he said.

Roberge said telecommunication companies were not held to the same standard as power utilities. Cell phones, hard-wired phones, and cable services slipped through the cracks after the storm, he said.

“While CL&P was being held to a higher standard in function and operation, mutual support between AT&T and CL&P regarding poles, pole ownership and pole placement and repair seemed to delay extensively into our restoration efforts,” he said.

Roberge said it would be nice to have more coordination and cooperation with AT&T in the future.

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