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4:55 PM EST, November 10, 2012
On the Saturday before Sandy hit, there was some confusion about whether Connecticut Light & Power could dedicate a line crew and a tree crew to every town from the start.
With some help from the governor, the problem was resolved. By Sunday night, many towns had linemen, working with local officials and cruising the roads — long before the first gust of storm wind.
Setting aside the question of whether that was a needless precaution, it symbolizes CL&P's hyper-readiness mode a year after customers, government officials and media heaped criticism on the utility for its response to the October snowstorm.
Certainly there was some criticism of CL&P's performance this year, from union leaders who cite operations issues to towns that had significant outages for the better part of a week. But, overall, the consensus was that CL&P handled Sandy better than Tropical Storm Irene or the October snowstorm of 2011.
"There was clearly more preparation in advance of this storm," said Roy Occhiogrosso, a top aide to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who spent many hours in the state's emergency operations center.
And communication, the biggest bugaboo after the snowstorm last year, was far better, though not perfect.
What's harder to judge, however, is how much improvement the company showed in actual performance on the power lines.
If you look at the first seven days after each storm, the average daily reduction in the number of customers without power was actually lower this year than last year, when the company was slammed for incompetence.
But there were clear differences in performance — including how quickly CL&P was able to get outside crews into the field and its focus on clearing roads as fast as possible — that may well have helped save the company from another embarrassing debacle.
Some believe the CL&P performance in the post-Sandy recovery, deploying upwards of 7,000 staffers and contractors, looks all the more favorable in comparison to the mistakes of last fall. Occhiogrosso sees it the other way.
"I think people would have been much more willing to view their performance favorably this time, had last October not occurred," he said. "There were still a lot of hard feelings from last year."
Last year's problems are well documented in at least four formal reviews done for the state and the company. This year, under new state rules, a formal review will happen. What will it find? Here's a breakdown of six things that went better for CL&P.
Feet On The Street
For all the talk about preparation and communication, nothing says "we care" more than sending manpower out to the streets — early and often. By Day 1 — Oct. 29, the day storm Sandy hit — CL&P had 730 line crews in place, all but 200 of them contractors from out of state. That was somewhat short of the 900 the company hoped to have, but Bill Quinlan, CL&P's senior vice president for emergency preparedness and the point man throughout the storm, had been careful not to promise the larger number.
By contrast, CL&P didn't have 700 crews in place until Day 5 after Irene and Day 4 after the 2011 snowstorm.
The vast majority of the out-of-state help came in the form of smaller private firms sending crews, not mutual aid from other utilities — most of which went to New York and New Jersey. The smaller firms are part of the nature of the business in an era when utilities run leaner. But not everyone was happy with the results.
"These little companies that are storm chasers, they're not up to snuff with the rest of the industry," said John Fernandes, business manager at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 457, which represents linemen. "In the past, you would have a train of trucks from large utilities. Now, you've got two here and three there."
Fernandes said many of those firms sent excellent crews. But for some, he said, training and equipment were inferior, which slowed the recovery. It's true that IBEW is trying to compel the company to hire more linemen, but it also makes sense that hiring crews from many firms could bring more risk than getting them through other large utilities.
CL&P spokesman Mitch Gross said there were no problems with out-of-state crews. "When we get commitments, it is our understanding that they are all fully qualified," he said.
There were some operations issues in the field, inevitably. For example, residents of a Guilford neighborhood had power restored on Day 5, only to lose it a few hours later. Some were told by public safety responders that three transformers had exploded. It's too soon to know publicly whether any specific incidents of that sort were the result of a crew's error, and if so, what crew. But, Gross said, CL&P will review everything the company did in the recovery.
Communication, communication, communication — whether direct to the public or to the towns, it's obviously crucial. The main improvement this year was a two-tiered system in which 15 community outreach people, several of them with political experience, came on board full-time. Once the storm hit, each town had a liaison who became their lifeline to the company.
By most accounts, the liaison system worked as planned. Long before the storm, each town gave the company a list of 10 priority sites to restore first, and that was a blueprint for action.
The trouble is that the liaisons were not magicians. They could smooth out some issues, but they couldn't make crews suddenly appear and they couldn't solve technical issues because they were not systems engineers.
By Day 2, the cities and towns with major outages — Ridgefield, Old Saybrook and Stonington, among others — were frustrated with the liaison system, because they were not seeing the crews they were promised. Some complained that the liaisons had no power to make things happen, and no experience in the field.
"You could get anyone," an Old Saybrook official said. "It could be the lady in payroll."
Well, that was the point — rank-and-file office employees getting out to the towns to make sure local concerns were not lost in the chaos. In Westbrook, First Selectman Willie Fritz was displeased with the company's recovery efforts. He let it be known to his liaison in no uncertain terms, and by the next day, he had crews in town — leading him to praise the system.
In the many press briefings that were widely aired, Quinlan gave more or less the same message that his old boss, Jeffrey Butler, gave last year: We're working hard, here's where we stand. Last year, there was obvious tension between Butler, who was president of CL&P and resigned his post after the storm, and the governor. This time around, Quinlan and his staff worked more closely with Malloy and his staff on advance preparations, and, Occhiogrosso said, were more willing to take suggestions during the recovery.
In the category of small details that add up, West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka said on Day 3 that the town was "flooded with emails and calls all day with frustrations rising because of that phone system." The problem: Residents were calling customer service and getting, in some cases, a clipped, recorded comment that the company didn't have any answers.
Slifka suggested a more detailed recording repeating the message Quinlan gave at the briefings. Gross, in response, said the company's banks of customer service people did, in fact, talk through customers' concerns in great detail.
The Art of Lowering Expectations
If CL&P learned one lesson last year, it was to resist making promises the company couldn't keep. This year's strategy was simple: Don't make promises at all, at least for a while.
It was Day 4 before the company gave any kind of timetable for power restoration, and even then it was broad, with room for error. The goal was to restore all but 24,000 customers, 2 percent of the entire base, by Day 9.
The number of customer outages fell to 182,000 on Day 4, leaving CL&P five more days to restore less than half the number of customers who were out at the peak. And 500 more linemen were on the way to Connecticut.
Customers and town officials wanted more detail, and on Day 5, they relaunched the interactive, town-by-town online estimator — which is built for small, localized events. Most towns with significant outages still showed no recovery dates. Other towns showed recovery by the end of Day 7, Sunday night, when in fact they were restored by Friday night, two days ahead.
By Day 9, Election Day, CL&P was down to fewer than 5,000 outages, easily meeting its target. By contrast, Day 9 of last year's recovery brought apologies from Butler for missing the target of 99 percent restoration — along with threats of lawsuits and angry calls for state reviews and federal investigations.
So, the company's performance was dramatically better this year, right? Not if you look at CL&P's average daily reduction in the number of people without power over the first six days after each storm. This year: 68,000. Last year: 83,000.
There are other measures, of course. This year's restoration showed results sooner — the number of customers out fell by 318,000 this year after three full days of cleanup, compared with 240,000 last year. And this year the roads were cleared much faster, with 90 percent of blocked streets reopened by the middle of Day 5.
The Year of Trees
Everyone agreed after last year's storms that CL&P had not kept up with the task of tree trimming. For all of 2011, the company spent $27 million cutting limbs, branches and whole trees that threatened transmission and distribution lines. This year, the total was $50 million.
"Did it help? Absolutely, in some areas it certainly did," Gross said.
Some residents have complained that the trimming is too aggressive, hurting their streets' appearance. Quinlan heard an earful from one Farmington resident, Alice B. Sawyer, on the Wednesday before Sandy hit. But that's one of the areas where the program worked well, Gross said. "It reduced the amount of time those customers were without power," he said.
On that same Wednesday, CL&P made its case before state regulators to increase the cutting to $60 million a year for the next five years. Quinlan agrees the company needs to strike a balance in tree-loving Connecticut. As for burying wires, at $1 million to $8 million per mile, with 17,000 miles of lines, that would cost tens of billions.
Falling trees hitting high-voltage transmission lines present a large threat to the system, as they are located outside the company's rights of way. "How much are we allowed to do? It was a problem last year, it was a problem again this year," Gross said.
After the 2011 storms, crews typically arrived at a street, cleared the way and restored power, more or less at once. That angered customers and town officials, who sent a message that Quinlan said the company heard and heeded: clear the roads ASAP and come back later to restore power, unless the restoration job is quick and easy.
The company will not concede that the strategy, known as "make safe," delayed power restoration overall this time. "We're in a parallel effort," Quinlan said, clearing roads and restoring power, sometimes with different sets of crews.
Some customers were befuddled by the practice, as they saw crews working their streets, only to leave before restoring power. Crews had discretion on whether to do both tasks at once, or clear the roads and leave the scene to clear others.
Fernandes, the union chief, said the strategy didn't work. "We've never been onboard with that and we weren't in on the decision," he said. "You're creating more work for yourself. What you're gaining on the front end, you're losing on the back end."
Fernandes said that a balance needs to be struck, and that the emphasis this time was too heavy on clearing roads first at the expense of power restoration.
It's hard to argue against "make safe" as a strategy, but if it did delay some restorations, the company should say so. Customers would understand.
In 2011, the company's emergency operations system didn't have the ability to pinpoint every truck. This year, it did, in real time, including where each vehicle was located, how fast it was moving and whether its bucket boom was raised.
That let the company move crews around quickly, to meet developing issues — or to respond to first selectmen and mayors demanding more resources.
"The ability of our town liaisons to sit and show the town officials exactly what the situation was in their communities, certainly helped," Gross said.
There were, however, some reports of town officials not finding the crews that the system said were on their streets. Occhiogrosso, the governor's aide, said he saw some instances of that happening, and chalked it up to "confusion."
Confusion is understandable in an operation of that size, and even if the company was playing some sleight of hand, as at least one first selectmen implied, at least it's better to have a sophisticated system to track it.
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