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CL&P gets failing grade, officials urge PURA to impose sanction

Fairfield County towns and cities were ready for Storm Sandy, but CL&P was not.

That is the emphasis in a letter to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) signed by the first selectmen of six towns, including Wilton, and mayors of two cities.

Written Dec. 11, under the umbrella South Western Region Metropolitan Planning Organization, the officials said Connecticut Light & Power’s performance was “below the needs” of the towns and “improvements that we understood would be implemented were not visible during Sandy.

“Our towns and cities were prepared and organized in the days leading up to Sandy. Our emergency response and management teams including public works, road crews, EOCs, and first responder teams are experienced, know their jobs and perform as expected, even above expectations. The breakdown in restoration comes with integrating CL&P into our local crews and our dependency on CL&P to restore the electrical infrastructure and reactivate power.”

Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, chairman of the organization, which is known by the acronym SWRMPO, will testify before PURA to that effect on behalf of member towns and cities Wilton, Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Weston, and Westport.

The letter includes a three-page attachment that details what the officials see as the major issues dealing with communications, power restoration, and CL&P operations.

Wilton First Selectman Bill Brennan said he suggested the officials submit testimony to PURA as a group.

“There are common problems that happened throughout the area,” he said.

When approached, PURA officials said they would be interested in seeing the comments as they related to changes that were expected in CL&P’s handling of major storms.

“We’re married to CL&P,” Mr. Brennan told The Bulletin. “We must work together. Criticism must be constructive to generate change.”

Still, his frustration with more than a week of power outages was evident.

“When they say they have crews on standby, the crews are on standby in Minnesota and Missouri. We need to have more people here. We are badly in need of tree crews.”

Customer operations, he said, was another area sorely in need of improvement. Particularly nettlesome was having CL&P operators tell residents to call town hall with questions about restoration.

“That is totally out of whack with the stated plans of CL&P,” he said.

The only say town officials have about power restoration is to specify critical priority areas, which include nursing and retirement homes, schools, pumping stations, and the like.

“After that, CL&P is totally responsible,” he said.

The utility, he said, which has no competition, has been too stockholder-centric in the past. It has not been re-investing in its operations, he added.

“We take our hat off to the guys [on the line] but they are not supermen.”

Specifics

Among the specific observations were the following:

• Daily status reports from CL&P were not timely and many times lacked clarity and consistency, particularly regarding accurate numbers of assigned crews. In addition, the officials said often it was not clear what kind of crews were being assigned: tree, line, pole, or “super” crews.

• Communication between CL&P supervisors and Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) was inefficient in many towns, as was communication between the utility’s senior managers and its field managers and crews.

• The information display format on power outage maps needs improvement.

• CL&P information to residents — its customers — is inaccurate and misleading, particularly regarding recorded messages and informal communication between field crews and residents.

• Out-of-state crews were dispatched too slowly, losing as many as two days’ time, and there was too much downtime between their arrival and field assignments.

• Too few crews were in place immediately after the storm.

• Line crews came without equipped tree crews, resulting in two days’ loss or restoration time.

• Because of inadequate pre-storm mobilization, CL&P is absent from early “make-safe” phases of post-storm operations, which ensures emergency vehicle access to all roads. Electrical crews are needed to support fire services in shutting off electricity.

• Too often crews focused on “easy fixes” rather than concentrating on blocked roads with wires down.

“We expect that PURA will take our observations seriously and respond to CL&P in a manner that compels them to work more closely with our municipalities and our emergency experts to make needed changes in their emergency operations,” the letter said. Because of the noncompetitive nature of the field, “the market forces of customer choice do not exist,” the officials said.

They added that CL&P should absorb the costs needed to make changes. In addition, they said they had been told informally by some CL&P employees the company “does not seek nor reward innovation and problem solving with regard to customer service,” adding, “We need PURA to impose sanctions tied to CL&P’s performance in making the needed changes.”

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