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November 7, 2010 (All day)
Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise

 

Last in a series of stories on winter storm preparedness.

By Marisa Donelan

Unitil's Emergency Planning Director Richard Francazio recently answered some questions from the Sentinel & Enterprise regarding the utility company's efforts to improve its storm response strategy.

Q. The December 2008 ice storm left thousands of people without power, some for weeks. What has Unitil done since to improve infrastructure so that power restoration will be faster?

A. For utilities, ice storms are one of the worst events in terms of total damage caused. Should a storm the size of the one in 2008 deliver a direct hit again on Fitchburg, there will be extended outages even with the best of plans.

What Unitil has done is implement the National Incident Management System, which will allow for greater coordination of the work needed to have an efficient recovery, as well as provide more consistent information to customers about the restoration process.

Planning for major storms begins three days in advance of an event. That planning assures we have the outside contractors on hand to get the job done as quickly as possible for customers, assess damage properly in the early stages of an event and make sure customers know exactly what the restoration efforts will entail.

Infrastructure condition and maintenance are related but separate from emergency response. Still, I know the two are often talked about together. Since the storm, Unitil has spent about $28 million on capital projects for Fitchburg Gas and Electric customers. That investment has improved reliability. As of Sept. 30, 2008, the average FG&E customer had experienced a total of 224 minutes of outage time. This year, the average was at 120 minutes as of Sept. 30 over the same nine-month period, a 40 percent improvement.

Q. How will the adoption of the Incident Command Structure benefit customers, and why do you believe Unitil is ready for the next major winter-weather emergency?

A. I believe Unitil is ready for the next major winter-weather emergency because one has already happened. The wind storm in February of this year was the second worst event in terms of damage New Hampshire had ever seen; only the ice storm was worse. About 82 percent of Unitil customers in New Hampshire lost power because of the storm. The Incident Command Structure was in place, and Unitil had all 63,000 of its impacted customers back up within four days. We were the first utility in the area to complete restoration, and we were able to release our crews to help get other customers back on. The response from local media and elected officials who witnessed our efforts in the face of another historic storm so soon after 2008 has been very positive.

What the incident command structure does is give us an ability to have a greater consistency in action and in the delivery of information for customers and emergency response agencies. We've continued to drill our response plan this summer and we are confident we are ready for the next event, should one occur again.

Q. Unitil has touted improvements to customer service operations. Are there any plans in the works to use mobile technology -- such as text-message alerts about storms and power outages -- to provide instant information to customers?

A. Yes. One of the key pieces to make text alerts happen, the centralization of our dispatch resources, was set to go live Nov. 1. When that happens, we are going to begin testing a SMS-based (text message) outage notification system internally. Once we've worked out the bugs, the plan is to launch a Twitter feed to give instant notifications to customers.

Mobile notifications make a lot of sense because when a person's power is out, smart phones are a means to stay connected and get notifications to customers, so it's something we want to do.

That's all in the short term. In the long term, we will begin testing internally an outage management system for the new company website by the end of the year and plan to have more in-depth info on unitil.com for the general public mid next year.

Q. How is Unitil prepared to communicate with public-safety officials in its service-area cities and towns during emergencies? In what ways has this changed or improved over practices in 2008, if at all?

A. That's part of the Incident Command Structure. Part of the chain of command created makes Carol Valianti our chief information officer in a storm. Her emergency response team includes resources dedicated specifically to communicating with municipal officials. All of Unitil's employees have been trained for a second job when we have an emergency, and some of those second jobs are to man municipal rooms for each of our service territories. These rooms will be staffed 24 hours with people to answer any public safety concerns or to address issues like street openings or shelters that may need to open. The intent is to make sure there is a two-way dialogue at all times.

We hold conference calls twice a day to brief municipal officials on restoration and we have a liaison officer in place to help keep state and regulatory officials in the loop as well. As part of this plan, we just sent all municipal officials in the area a letter notifying them of a special hotline to call anytime to get info on an outage. We had a hotline before, but this new number will give us some greater flexibility internally to make sure the call is routed correctly depending on the situation, either to our dispatch offices or to the municipal room should it be activated.

Q. What ways has Unitil worked to maintain vegetation around power lines and other infrastructure?

A. Tree-trimming is always a challenge for utilities. It's arguably the No. 1 source of complaints for everyone in the industry, Unitil included. What happens is we all agree that more tree-trimming improves reliability, but no one really wants the beautiful trees in front of their own property touched! It's a tough situation. Right now, all lines in our north-central Massachusetts territory are on a five- to seven-year cycle. More are on the five-year cycle than the seven-year plan; the voltage of the corridor dictates how often the street is cut.

Following the storm, Unitil asked a third-party consultant to look at its tree-trimming policies and make recommendations. In June, after reviewing the study, Unitil filed some possible options on how to enhance its programs with the state, because the final decision on how much tree-trimming actually happens is one of the things the DPU regulates. We hope to have more we can share on this soon. That said, even a more aggressive plan will almost certainly make some happy while upsetting others. That's tree trimming for you.

Q. In what ways has Unitil invested in things directly related to emergency response (vehicles, emergency personnel)?

A. The $28 million figure I mentioned before covers all capital investments (new purchases) in 2009 and 2010 for Massachusetts. In comparison, our Concord, N.H., territory has seen about $13.5 million for the same period of time. New vehicles have been purchased, and staff has been bolstered in a lot of different places. However, when we are talking about emergencies, one of the key things to focus on is how to manage the days of preparation leading up to the storm. No utility had the resources on hand to address the ice storm, so when an event of that size hits, there is competition ahead of time to secure third-party contractors who can help with restoration efforts. One of the important things we've done is dramatically expand the pool of contract resources to make sure we have a solid base we can call on when the forecast calls for it.

Q. What should people do when they encounter a downed power line during or after a storm?

A. Don't touch them, don't drive over them! Just stay away and notify us! Always assume a downed line is live, even it appears otherwise. People used to believe that a car was the safest place to be if there were live wires on the ground because of the rubber tires. That was before tires had steel belts inside of them, something that dramatically changes their conductivity. The one exception is if the line falls onto a car or near a car when you are inside. In that case, remain still and don't touch the walls of the vehicle, as there may be a current flowing around you. Call 911 if you have a phone in the vehicle and wait for help if the situation allows for it. Also, if a home has an improperly installed generator running, it can actually backfeed power into an otherwise dead line, making it live even if it has no connection to the grid.

Bottom line, under no circumstances should any customer ever approach a downed line. Call our customer service line at 888-301-7700 and we will get a crew out to make a fix.

Q. Are you still dealing with lasting damage from the 2008 ice storm? If so, how are you addressing the damage?

A. There are still a few places like Highland Street, where we are currently doing some work putting new conductors in on a line which was repaired during the storm, but our current reliability statistics, the ones I referred to for your first question, show that the system is currently operating better than prior to the storm. Let's be real, though. The relevant lasting damage from the storm is the feeling among people in the area, right or wrong, that Unitil let them down. I bet no one in the area would believe that there have been less outages this year than before, but that has more to do with how people feel about Unitil over anything actually happening with the system.

Addressing that reputational damage is going to take a lot longer than fixing any patch job, and taking the time to answer whatever questions we get in as much detail as possible is the only way to begin the recovery. That and keeping the lights on, of course.

Q. How should Unitil customers report concerns, such as leaning or aging utility poles, that aren't direct results of power outages or emergencies -- but could become problems if bad weather struck? And what is the process for responding to those concerns?

A. Call it in. We are always inspecting the lines as we are driving through town, and lines are inspected regularly as part of our maintenance programs, but that doesn't mean you should assume we are already aware of a situation in town. Call the customer service line at 888-301-7700 and get a report of the pole you are concerned about in to us. Include an address or an intersection so we know exactly where we need to go. A crew will go out and inspect the pole, and if work is needed to repair the situation, we'll get the work done. Unitil owns and is responsible for maintaining all of the poles in Ashby, northern Fitchburg and about 75 percent of Townsend. In southern Fitchburg and Lunenburg, the telephone company is the primary owner, though Unitil still owns about 10 percent of the poles in this region.

The same goes for any outage a customer experiences. Always call your own outage in, even if you know you aren't the only person affected. For all the advancements in technology, customer calls on outages are still extremely valuable, as they help paint a picture of the total impact to a system.

mdonelan@sentinelandenterprise.com

 

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