N.H. utility companies learn from past storms
Unitil lineman Sean Singer of Canterbury repairs a power line on King Road in Chichester; Monday, October 29, 2012. At one point all of Unitil's Chichester customers were without power. (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
From enhanced tree removal to accountants acting as in-house travel agents, utility companies in New Hampshire have developed intricate response plans for major weather events.
The driving force for many of the changes: a refusal to relive the weeks-long outages of the December 2008 ice storm.
James Van Dongen, spokesman for the state Department of Safety said the efforts have paid off.
“I think they’ve done a good job,” he said. “The utilities have really done a much better job of preparing for a major storm, and since 2008, we’ve all kind of had our eyes opened by the ice storm for how bad a major storm could actually be.”
The ice storm knocked out power for two-thirds of the population of the state, four or five times as big an outage as had ever been experienced in New Hampshire before, he said, and in many cases, power was out for several days.
“We’d never had anything like that, and it gets your attention. (Utility companies) caught hell from their customers and from regulators,” he said.
A change to state law inspired by the ice storm helped utilities speed up their tree trimming pace and hopefully avoid limbs bringing down lines. Before, companies needed written permission from every landowner in the trimming zone. The new law allows trimming if no one files objections within 45 days of the trimming announcement.
Since the new law passed, PSNH shortened the rotation schedule for trimming around its 11,000 miles of power lines, so trees near lines are trimmed every four years, instead of every five, as they were before 2008, according to spokesman Martin Murray.
The company also instituted a new enhanced trimming program for areas especially prone to tree-related outages. This year alone, PSNH has removed 5,000 trees, and with a budget of $2.5 million, is on pace to remove 8,000 by the end of the year, Murray said.
During a major weather event, however, “the big picture in terms of what we learned?” Murray said, “Communication is absolutely key.”
PSNH has started calling in crews from out of New England as early as possible, with 100 crews already in the state yesterday and as many as 550 on their way for today, Murray said.
Unitil and the New Hampshire Electric Co-operative also said they’ve dramatically improved their communication with government agencies, with customers and internally after every major storm of the past few years.
In 2009, as part of the company response to the 2008 ice storm, Unitil created a new position for a senior level emergency response director and adopted an incident command system, based on how fire departments in Colorado approach large-scale forest fires, O’Meara said.
Unitil will likely go from about a 400-person tree and line crew staff to about 1,000, according to spokesman Alex O’Meara.
In the ramp-up to a major storm, “we might even have people who normally work as accountants help with logistics, arranging hotel rooms and transportation and everything for those people.
When we’re in recovery, you might find people that might work as engineers are helping at staging sites directing traffic. It’s all-hands,” O’Meara said.
At the cooperative, which serves about 83,000 customers, “what we’ve learned from our experience is to get our line workers more attuned to passing along information to us at headquarters,” said Seth Wheeler, communications administrator.
“Sometimes, the line workers just want to be out there doing their job, they don’t want to be on the phone, but if they can update us about what they’ve gotten done, we can update customers faster,” he said.
Every employee in the cooperative was also trained in the past few years to take outage calls from customers. With as many as 120 phone lines going into the office and only nine people in the call center, “it gets really backed up,” Wheeler said.
At peak times, as many as 20 people can answer calls, in addition to the automated system, which registers outage reports as well.
“People want a live person if they can get one,” Wheeler said. “Those extra people don’t necessarily need to be fully trained, but they can be on the phone with people.”
The company has also created a Twitter account which posts only during major outages, and has increased pre-storm messages to customers, he said.
“We’re trying to get people to charge their cell phones before the storm comes, and we let them know that what we know is going to go up on Twitter,” he said.
But despite the advent of Twitter, changes to state law and increased cooperation across state and regional lines, “in a lot of regards, the job hasn’t changed in 50 years,” Wheeler said. “The bottom line is the wind is going to blow, and trees will fall down. We expect a certain degree of damage, and there’s nothing you can do about it until it stops.”